Heroin addiction has risen to the level of an epidemic in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin addiction currently affects 6 million Americans. Heroin addiction is one of the more difficult addictions to overcome, but it is possible with the right rehabilitation program.
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Heroin was introduced more than 100 years ago as a less addictive alternative to morphine, a prediction that turned out to be horribly untrue. Like morphine and opium, this drug is derived from the seeds of the poppy plant. This makes it an “opiate” drug and also assigns it to the class of drugs known as narcotics.
In its pure form, heroin is a white or slightly brown powder. It is often not sold in pure form, however, and there are variations of this drug, called black tar, that are black due to contaminants. Pure heroin can be snorted, smoked, or injected. Black tar is injected either into the skin, muscles, or veins. In rare cases, this drug has been injected into the eye.
The boom in heroin use is partly due to the low cost of the drug (only $5 per bag), but is also a result of the highly addictive nature of the drug. Particularly problematic with opiate drugs is the fact that it is often injected and thus puts users at risk for a number of severe infection like hepatitis and HIV (the virus responsible for AIDS).
Early signs of addiction include changes in behavior, cycles of alertness and extreme fatigue, a “droopy” appearance (often described as the person’s limbs appearing heavy), and constricted pupils. The presence of drug paraphernalia (burnt spoons, hypodermic needles, syringes, missing shoelaces, straws with burn marks, etc.) is also a common sign of addiction.
Later stages of addiction are marked by depression, apathy, decreased performance at work/school, and by increasing withdrawal from society, friends, and family. Users may begin to show track marks (injection site injuries) on their arms, legs, necks, or even feet.
The biggest risks with heroin abuse are overdose and disease. This drug is a well-known respiratory depressant, which means that it decreases the normal signals that brain sends out to take a breath. Too much of it can actually shut down the body’s ability to breathe entirely, leading to coma, brain damage, or even death. The risk of such an overdose does not seem to diminish with time, making heroin an easy drug for any user (amateur or experienced) to OD on.
The risk of contracting a disease with heroin use is high because the drug is commonly injected. If care isn’t taken to ensure that sterile needles are used each time, there is potential for everything from bacterial blood infections to deadly viruses like hepatitis and HIV.
Addiction is best treated in an inpatient (or, residential) setting for two reasons. First, the withdrawal symptoms can be managed. Withdrawal from opiates generally isn’t life threatening, but the symptoms are so unpleasant that addicts generally turn back to use rather than experience withdrawal. In an inpatient setting, medications can be administered to assist with common withdrawal symptoms like depression, sensitive genitals, insomnia, muscle aches, anxiety, depression, vomiting, and persistent erection (priapism).
The second reason that inpatient treatment of addiction is encouraged is that the psychological dependency most users develop for the drug tends to be severe. In fact, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has found that 60% of heroin users relapse as a result of psychological dependency on the drug. Inpatient treatment centers can offer the kind of intensive therapy (e.g. group, cognitive-behavioral, psychoanalysis, etc.) needed to overcome the psychological aspects of addiction.