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What is heroin addiction?

Heroin addiction can develop very quickly and is medically recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO ) and The National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as a chronic, progressive relapsing brain disorder; characterised by compulsive drug seeking and taking despite negative consequences. 1

Heroin addiction is considered a brain disorder because it causes structural and functional changes to the brain’s circuits that control reward, stress and impulse. The more heroin that is used, the more pronounced these changes become. 1

Even when heroin use has been successfully stopped, structural changes to the brain can remain for a long time and in many cases can last a lifetime. 1 This is why rehabilitation treatment from heroin addiction is so important.

Whilst heroin addiction cannot be cured, it can be arrested from further progression and the affected person can learn to live a heroin free life with the correct treatment and support.

What is heroin?

Heroin is a Class A highly addictive opiate drug with powerful analgesic effects. Made from morphine, heroin is well known for its addictive properties and ability to absolutely ruin an individual’s life within a very short space of time.

When heroin is taken it quickly binds to the brain’s opioid receptors, artificially inducing large amounts of dopamine to be released, creating an extreme euphoric high.

The consequences of heroin addiction

Heroin addiction is well known for its consequences. Regular heroin use can destroy a person’s appearance and change their behaviour within weeks.

Heroin is currently responsible for an alarming number of deaths around the world. Over the past decade there has been a steady increase in deaths attributed to the misuse of heroin throughout the UK.

  1. In England and Wales, there were 4,359 deaths relating to drug poisoning registered in 2018. This is the highest number of deaths recorded since records first began.
  2. In 2018, 2,208 of the 4,359 deaths were attributed to any opiate, thats more than half of all drug related deaths.
  3. 1,336 deaths were specific to heroin and morphine. Heroin and morphine are recorded as one as the body breaks heroin back down into morphine once ingested.

Source: ONS – Deaths due to drug poisoning in England and Wales 2018, by selected substance

Left untreated addiction only ever becomes progressively worse. The more heroin that is taken the more damage is caused to the brain. Negative consequences become bigger and more harmful.

Make no mistake, if someone is addicted to heroin it will be affecting all areas of their life in some way. Heroin addiction is an insidious disease that eventually infiltrates every aspect of a person’s being and those that are around them.

Financial consequences of heroin addiction

A bag of heroin in the UK can cost anything between £10 and £20 depending on the area. This may not seem like alot, but consider this – an addicted person can be known to use several bags a day in order to prevent heroin withdrawal.

Heroin’s effects wear off after approximately 3 to 5 hours. The longevity of heroin’s effects depend on the quantity taken, it’s purity levels and potency as well as the individuals tolerance levels. Once heroin wears off, a heroin dependent person will start suffering opioid withdrawal symptoms within a short space of time.

Someone who suffers from heroin addiction or dependence will need to ensure that they always have heroin available to prevent full blown opioid withdrawal from developing. This can cost a person up to or over £100 a day.

Most individuals who suffer with heroin addiction will literally do almost anything in order to find the money to fund their habit. This includes selling possessions, stealing, borrowing, begging and prostitution. Compulsive drug seeking and taking is rarely conducive to holding down a job or earning money legitimately for very long.

Emotional consequences of heroin addiction

Heroin’s effects suppress negative feelings of any kind and transport the user away from reality and their problems. This is why heroin is so appealing to those that become addicted to it. No matter what is going on in their life, the trauma they have suffered in the past, even if they are homeless and sleeping on the streets, heroin’s effects somehow make everything okay.

Untreated heroin addiction means that the person never has to face the consequences of their own reality. However, over time, they will need to use more heroin to block out emotions and to be able to function in their ‘normality’.

Being a heroin addict means that emotional growth is severely impaired through being repeatedly blocked. Whilst using heroin the person will be emotionally unavailable. This emotional unavailability coupled with addictive behaviours destroys trust in personal relationships. Family members, significant others and friends will feel helpless as they watch their loved one literally disappear into oblivion, becoming evermore consumed by their addiction.

At Delamere we often find (following on from a heroin detox) that patient’s revert back to the same emotional age as when they first started to use the drug. For some this will mean that they have the emotional capacity of a teenager. They will be prone to emotional outbursts and general unmanageability around their emotional state. This makes for a very volatile mind set.

Part of what we teach at Delamere is ways in which newly detoxed patients can safely process and manage their emotions without reverting to using drugs to suppress them. This is not a quick process, years of addiction can not be undone within a matter of days.

In addition to suffering emotionally as a result of heroin addiction, heroin also has a profound effect on a person’s mental health state.

Mental health consequences of heroin addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dysphoria
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations (seeing of hearing things that are not there)
  • Obsessive and negative thought patterns
  • Reduced cognitive ability
  • Increased risk taking and recklessness
  • Memory impairment
  • Suicidal ideation

Physical consequences of heroin addiction

As well as heroin addiction carrying emotional, mental and financial consequences, there are of course negative physical consequences.

Physical consequences of heroin addiction can be very harsh and often life threatening. One of the cruelest aspects of addiction, is, even when an individual is dying as a direct result from their substance abuse they will still continue to compulsively seek and take the drug.

Physical consequences of heroin addiction vary depending on the route of administration. Injecting heroin is considered the most dangerous way of taking this highly toxic drug, it generally carries more risks physically than smoking, snorting or swallowing.

Physical consequences of heroin addiction include:

  • Contracting blood borne viruses through sharing heroin paraphernalia, such as hepatitis and HIV
  • Abscesses, collapsed veins, cellulitis and infections at injection sites
  • Risk of aortic rupture (injecting)
  • Damage to lungs and airways (inhaling and smoking heroin)
  • High risk of overdose and death (all methods of administration)
  • Damage to the heart, liver, brain and kidneys (all methods of administration)
  • Tooth decay and tooth loss (all methods of administration)
  • High risk of accident and injury whilst under the influence (all methods of administration)
  • Severe weight loss and malnutrition (all methods of administration)

There is literally no ‘safe’ way of taking heroin. Heroin’s purity levels in the UK is historically high. Heroin is also often cut with other powerful drugs such as cocaine and fentanyl. This is causing more drug overdoses than ever before due to its volatile unpredictability.

If you or a loved have a problem with heroin, we cannot stress enough how dangerous this particular drug is and how many die as a result of using it. Please call and speak to a member of our Delamere team to find out how we can help you or your loved one to access the correct heroin treatment and support.

Heroin addiction treatment

Heroin is a drug of the opiate family, extracted from the opium poppy

Street names and slang terms for heroin include:

Smack, Brown, Horse, H, Hell Dust and Mexican mud (amongst many others)

The dangers of heroin are well documented. Studies in America have shown that almost a quarter of first-time users go on to develop a full-blown addiction.

The immediate feelings of well-being, euphoria and pain relief are countered by pernicious side effects that can put the user at serious risk of lasting mental and physical harm.

Users can quickly build up a tolerance to heroin, leading to the use of ever-greater amounts to achieve the desired effects. Once addiction kicks in, it can be extremely hard to reverse, and professional help is essential.

The risks and side effects of using heroin include:

  • Severe nausea
  • Choking on own vomit
  • Slowed breathing and even respiratory failure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Drowsiness and mental confusion
  • Depression
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C or HIV for users who inject
  • Infection at the point of injection
  • Seizures

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What are the behavioural symptoms of heroin addiction to look out for?

If you are concerned a family member, friend or work colleague may be using heroin, look out for behavioural signs such as frequent absences from work or study, substandard performance and a general loss of interest in things that once seemed important.

Heroin users are often very secretive about their heroin use and will give elaborate stories to cover up their mistakes and absences. This means frequently lying to loved ones about their activities and whereabouts. A heroin user may also try to conceal any evidence of marks left by intravenous injections.

Keep an eye open for dramatic mood swings, changes in appearance, financial problems and increasing isolation from friends and family.

Some of the physical symptoms of heroin addiction

As a toxin, heroin will gradually eat away at healthy brain cells and tissues, causing all manner of long-term health implications.

Physical symptoms of heroin addiction that are more apparent outwardly include:

  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Lethargy
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bruising and track marks from injecting
  • Weight loss ( often very dramatic)
  • Intense itching
  • Skin lesions and sores
  • Grey unhealthy skin pallor
  • Opioid withdrawal symptoms – Similar to Flu like symptoms but more aggressive and accompanied by severe anxiety, depression, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Mental symptoms of heroin addiction

When not actually high on heroin, users can descend into severe depression and a sense of hopelessness that the depression is there to stay. This can be combined with feelings of guilt, emptiness and despair.

The inability to sleep exacerbates feelings of anxiety, panic and dread, clouding mental function and leading to poor judgement. You may notice an inability to concentrate and a general sense of confusion.

Opiate withdrawal – The major obstacle to recovery

Sadly, many of those addicted to heroin would rather stay addicted than face the potential trauma of withdrawal.
Symptoms of heroin withdrawal usually become noticeable within 6 to 24 hours of the last dose of heroin and can last as long as two weeks at their most severe. There are many factors that affect the severity and longevity of the withdrawal process.

Almost inevitably, users who try to manage a heroin withdrawal process by themselves tend to abandon the attempt after several days. The mental obsession and torment combined with physical heroin withdrawal symptoms are too much too bare for most.

The more heroin that a user is accustomed to taking and the longer the duration of their addiction, the more severe withdrawal symptoms will be and the longer they will last. Medically unassisted heroin withdrawal has a vastly increased risk of leading to PAWS (Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome) In some cases of PAWS, opioid withdrawal symptoms can come and go for months, even years after stopping heroin.

Those addicted to heroin who have been mixing it with alcohol, prescription opiates, gabapentinoids, benzodiazepines, crack or cocaine (speedballing), or taking heroin laced with fentanyl will find their symptoms more pronounced, extended and varied. Dual addiction and poly drug use is very common in heroin addiction.

On the other hand, those who access a medical detox through a recognised CQC registered heroin rehab stand a far higher chance of success. This is due to receiving approved medication to lessen the severity of opioid withdrawal and receiving professional support within a temptation free environment.

Particular physical and psychological symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal include:

  • Intense heroin cravings
  • Profuse sweating
  • General fatigue and difficulty sleeping
  • Aching muscles and stomach cramps
  • Dehydration
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Vomiting, diarrhoea
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Inability to focus on tasks
  • Bouts of paranoia

The Delamere approach to heroin addiction treatment

Without sustained professional help, the chances of recovery from heroin addiction are very slim.

At Delamere we have a multidisciplinary team of highly experienced hands-on professionals with unrivalled in-depth knowledge of heroin addiction and its treatment.

Our heroin treatment programmes are tailored to the individual. Where a heroin dependence is identified, a medically assisted detoxification will be delivered within our specialist detox unit with 24/7 nursing support. We are also able to facilitate full medical detoxes for those with numerous or complex drug dependencies and/or mental health illnesses.

One to one and group counselling is designed to help patients understand the underlying causes of their problem and help them overcome them. We also deliver a vast array of innovative evidence based treatments designed to heal our patients on every level possible.

Without this level of professional help and expertise, it is all too easy for a heroin addict to give into cravings and temptation and revert back to heroin use. Even those with the strongest desire to quit heroin will usually find themselves back at square one. This is due to the aforementioned changes in the brain that heroin addiction causes. Heroin addiction must be addressed professionally and comprehensively if the person is to make a full and sustainable recovery.

If you are worried that heroin addiction has become a problem in your life, or in the life of someone you care about Delamere can help. Please call us today for a free of charge heroin addiction assessment and expert advice.

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  1. NIDA. The Science of Addiction. Drug misuse and addiction – Goldstein RZ, Volkow ND. Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011;12(11):652-669. doi:10.1038/nrn3119
  2. Office for National Statistics ONS Deaths related to drug poisoning in england and Wales 2018 by selected substances. Download Deaths related to drug poisoning by selected substances: 2018 registrations in xlsx format xlsx (1.1 MB)



What is rehab