Heroin Addiction and Abuse

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Classification and Facts

Heroin abuse is prevalent in the UK and traps many people in an addiction cycle. While it may seem impossible for you to imagine a life free of heroin, understanding how it affects your health and wellbeing could help you to reach out for professional help. Here at the Providence Projects we have helped thousands of people change their life course and steer it in the direction they want, avoid relapse and start anew.

What Is Heroin

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that is derived from processing morphine. It acts on your pain receptors and those that regulate breathing. It binds to these receptors, causing a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, inducing relaxation, detachment, and an absence of physical and psychological pain. Eventually, your brain stops producing these neurotransmitters because heroin is supplying them artificially. Heroin causes changes to your brain chemistry so your reward system does not work the way it should.


Heroin is a Class A, Schedule 2 drug in the UK, which classifies it as one of the most dangerous. This means it is illegal to be in possession of it without a prescription – even if t doesn’t belong to you. It is also illegal to produce or supply it if you do not have a license. The penalty for possession of heroin is up to seven years imprisonment and a fine. The supply or production of heroin is a life sentence, an unlimited fine, or both penalties. Heroin is classified as a Class A drug because it is one of the most harmful drugs for your body and mind.

Addiction Potential

The addiction potential of a substance refers to how easy it is to become addicted and unfortunately heroin is one of the most addictive substances created. It was developed initially as a painkiller and even though it carries a high potential for addiction, it is still used for medicinal purposes.

Heroin enters your brain very quickly. After a hit, you experience an almost-instant sense of euphoria. Because it binds to the receptors that are responsible for pain, pleasure, heart rate, sleeping, and breathing it is both physiologically and psychologically addictive. As it is readily available and relatively cheap, many people fall into the trap of heroin addiction.

Signs & Symptoms

When you abuse heroin initially, you may use it recreationally as the result of social pressure, with no intention of becoming addicted to it. Abusing it means you do not take it for medical reasons. Because of heroin’s high potential for addiction, your use can spiral out of control very quickly. Perhaps you started using it to self-medicate against anxiety, depression, or ADHD, or to experience a high. Maybe when you started using it, you were able to control your use but over time, as your brain chemistry becomes more dysregulated, you don’t feel as though you can function without it, despite it having negative effects on your life.

When you become addicted to heroin it interferes with your job, schooling, or personal relationships. Over time it starts to take a toll on your health, and if you try to stop, you experience distressing withdrawal symptoms that affect your quality of life. If you have wanted to cut back or quit heroin and you’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms, it is a sign you have developed physical dependence.

The signs and symptoms of heroin abuse are highly subjective. If you are concerned that someone you care about is abusing heroin, you might notice unusual or out-of-character behaviours.

Some of the signs that your heroin use has spiralled out of control include:

  • Intermittent bouts of depression, euphoria, and mood swings
  • Hostility and agitation towards other people
  • A decreased appetite and weight loss
  • Bruises or scabs on the skin
  • Needle or puncture marks on the skin
  • Paranoid, hallucinations, and disorientation
  • Frequent respiratory infections

Psychological Dependence

Becoming psychologically dependent on heroin leaves you feeling as though you can’t cope or function without it. You might feel as though you can’t cope with your day-to-day responsibilities or function on what you consider to be a normal level. You experience strong cravings, cannot sleep and lose your appetite without heroin.

The Dangers of Heroin Addiction

The longer you use heroin, the more severe the risks are to your mind and body. Seeking professional help as soon as possible can repair the damage that has been done, prevent further harm, and improve your quality of life. If you continue to use it, you will put yourself at risk of devastating effects such as

  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Damage to the valves and lining of your heart
  • Skin disease
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Scarred and collapsed veins
  • Blood clots that can cause pulmonary embolism, stroke, and heart attack
  • Respiratory depression
  • An increased risk of hepatitis B and C, and HIV
  • Seizures
  • Overdose and death

Heroin & Pregnancy

If you have been using heroin and discover that you are pregnant, it is very important to seek professional help, no matter how difficult it might be. Out of concern for your developing baby, you may decide to get clean and stop using heroin. However, your withdrawal symptoms must be managed medically because they can be very harmful to your baby. When a baby is born to a mother using heroin, the baby will be born addicted and go through withdrawal, after delivery. This is known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. It can affect your baby’s ability to breathe and eat. It can cause vomiting, restlessness, and tremors.

Heroin Overdose

A heroin overdose can be fatal and requires urgent medical assistance. The most common symptoms of a heroin overdose are shallow breathing, blue lips and fingertips, and pale skin. The person may be unresponsive or they may appear intoxicated, unstable on their feet, or slur their speech.

Other signs of an overdose include pinpoint pupils, low blood pressure and a weak pulse, vomiting, and nausea. If the person is conscious, he or she may complain about stomach cramps, a headache, or chest pains. If you suspect a  heroin overdose has taken place, do not delay, call for emergency help immediately. Try to rouse the person and turn the person to the side to assist with breathing.

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Diagnosing Heroin Addiction

Diagnosing a heroin addiction is done by a medical professional who asks you questions about your past and present patterns of use. Based on your feedback, your addiction can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe.

We understand that this is tough and it takes a great deal of courage to go through with it. Even though you may have strong emotions about heroin addiction, it’s important to answer the questions as accurately as you can. This is important because it helps healthcare practitioners to create the most effective treatment plan to help you get better. The purpose of diagnosing a heroin addiction is to help you get better, not to stigmatise or prejudice you. Your feedback and responses will be treated with the utmost confidentiality and respect.

Getting Help for Heroin Addiction

Understanding and accepting that you have a problem with heroin is the first step in treating your addiction. While you might feel embarrassed, guilty, or apprehensive about professional treatment, your chances of recovery can only be realised if you are ready to reach out for help.

Heroin addiction is a chronic medical disease that requires the appropriate treatment, just like any other disease. Because the drug is so addictive and relapse rates are high, you need professional medical help from a caring and nonjudgemental team of experts. Fortunately, there are a number of different treatment options available to help you.

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Because heroin abuse and addiction is so prevalent in the UK, there are a number of ways to address it. A professional can help you to decide which is the most appropriate for where you are in your life.

The NHS offers free treatment services, as do a number of charities, however, the waiting lists can be very long. If you would like immediate treatment, which can limit your exposure to more risks from prolonged heroin use, a private rehab programme is a good option to consider.

Participating in a detox, followed by a rehab programme is the most comprehensive way to tackle a heroin addiction. A residential programme will take you out of your home environment and its potential triggers and give you the opportunity to focus on healing and recovery. If it isn’t practically possible to take time off work, an outpatient programme allows you to continue with your day-to-day responsibilities and still receive the treatment you need to make a drastic change in your life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How is heroin addiction treated?

Treatment for heroin addiction depends on you as an individual, how much you have been using and how long you have been using. You typically have a choice between maintenance therapy (substituting heroin for methadone and continuing to use methadone) or a detox whereby you switch to methadone and then gradually are weaned off it.

Can I test my child for heroin use at home?

There are home tests available for heroin testing but they are not always reliable. Heroin addiction and abuse is also a sensitive topic and if your child is using it, you run the risk of alienating him or her if you do not handle it delicately. Providence Projects accepts immediate admissions and can help parents and youngsters with the challenges of heroin addiction.

Can you be a highly functional heroin addict?

While there is a social stigma associated with heroin addiction, there are plenty of people who are high functioning individuals who abuse the drug. Even if it is not having an obvious adverse effect on your social life, finances, or personal relationships, it will affect your health negatively. Addressing it as soon as possible can help to mitigate these risks.

When should I look for help if I use heroin?

Because the psychological and physiological effects of heroin use can compound very quickly it’s essential to get help immediately. So many of our clients tell us they do not enjoy using heroin, but they continue to ward off withdrawal symptoms. If you can relate, it’s time to get in touch with us.

What is the effect of methadone?

Methadone is a long acting opioid that is used in maintenance therapy. It blocks cravings for heroin. It also blocks the effects of heroin in the event of a relapse and stops you from getting high. It is used to manage the withdrawal effects of heroin abuse.

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