A primer on heroin addiction

Opioids have legal medical uses as potent pain relievers helping patients cope with painful symptoms associated with diseases or conditions. Heroin, classified as an opioid, is illegal in most countries. However, it is used in limited medical treatment applications. It is a very powerful opioid and heroin addiction or dependency to the drug can develop.

How addiction develops

In some people, heroin addiction begins when they are prescribed opioids for controlling pain. Even if opioids and heroin are used for several days, it rarely results to addiction when under close medical supervision. Withdrawal symptoms may be felt when they stop using it, but it does not really produce dependence on the drug.

Another side to the coin is that tolerance to the drug may develop after several days of using it for pain control. You might see people who have tolerance to the drug acting normally in their day to day business for as long as they have access to the substance.


People who use heroin or opioids in general become quiet and introspective. They may also exhibit the following symptoms:

  • - Euphoria

  • - Constipation

  • - Flushed skin

  • - Lowered blood pressure

In addition they will suffer from:

  • - Itching

  • - Shallow breathing

  • - Low body temperature

  • - Low heart rate

  • - Confusion (in older people)


When heroin is injected, this can cause several complications because of needle sharing. As such, the following can occur:

  • - Viral hepatitis – causes liver damage

  • - Infections – sepsis can occur which will infect the brain and bones

  • - Skin sores - skin will pop due to repeated injections leading to vein scarring

  • - Lung problems – pneumonia, abscesses and pulmonary emboli can develop

  • - AIDS - as a result of needle sharing, HIV can spread through this route


Heroin addiction can be treated in two ways:

  • Emergency treatment

To prevent death from occurring, breathing problems are addressed through the use of a ventilator. Naloxone is administered as an antidote to the opioid.

  • Detox and rehab

The primary aim of treatment is to lessen the symptoms of withdrawal. Methadone may be given to substitute the opioid. Although it is an opioid by itself the effect of methadone in altering brain function is less intense than heroin. It can be used in the short and long term.

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