Many highly addictive drugs have developed a reputation for causing addiction to develop quickly.
In fact, for some drugs, it is claimed that addiction can happen after just one hit. Heroin is one of these drugs; as evidenced by articles like one shared by the Naked Scientists, there are people out there who believe that using the drug only once can result in immediate addiction.
While this urban legend is not true, the myth has developed based on a harsh reality: The immediate effects of using heroin only once can make people want to use it again and again. It is this regular use of heroin that can quickly lead to addiction. What is not such common knowledge is the fact that, along with the risk of addiction, there are a number of side effects – both in the short-term and long-term – that can arise with repeated heroin abuse.
Why People Use Heroin: Immediate and Short-Term Effects
Heroin is a powerful substance, derived from the opium poppy, which creates a strong sense of euphoria in the user. This sensation is experienced as an overwhelming rush of pleasure and wellbeing, including a diminished ability to feel pain. These feelings are extremely attractive, and rumors about their greatness are usually what get people to try the drug for the first time.
As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin works by quickly binding with special cells in the brain referred to as opioid receptors, which then causes the rush of euphoria. The immediate effects include:
- A surge of pleasure (the euphoria response)
- Flushing and warmth of the skin
- Dry mouth
- Heaviness in the arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
Depending on the dose, some of these immediate effects can be extreme enough to be life-threatening. In effect, addiction won’t happen with one hit, but it is possible to experience a fatal overdose the very first time heroin is used.
Long-Term Side Effects of Heroin Use
Regardless of the other immediate effects of the drug, the sensation of pleasure is often strong enough to make the individual want to use heroin again just to repeat the feeling. If the person responds to that desire and uses heroin repeatedly, a number of long-term mental and physical side effects can develop, as described by the Center for Substance Abuse Research.
- Collapsed or clogged veins
- Heart or circulatory infections
- Lung damage
- Liver damage and disease
- Hypoxia, or low oxygen in the blood
- Digestive issues
- Sleep disorders and fatigue
- Mental cloudiness or cognitive damage
In addition to these effects, a person who uses heroin repeatedly can develop a condition called tolerance, explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Over time, the effects of the same dose of heroin may seem to diminish as a result of the brain becoming used to the drug and working to compensate. The resulting feeling that the dose isn’t working as well to create a high may cause the person to use higher doses of the drug. This can lead to a spiraling cycle of increasing dosage, developing tolerance to that dose, and increasing to a new level of tolerance again.
Also over time, the person’s sense of feeling pleasure diminishes even when off the drug, leading the person to use heroin just to be able to feel good. This is when dependence on the drug develops along with addiction.
Does Stopping Heroin Use Help?
Some people assume that just stopping use of heroin can return the brain and body to normal. Research from Addiction Science & Clinical Practice has indicated that there are potential treatments that can aid in this recovery, helping to counter the damaging effects of using the drug for a long time. While this can be true for some, the ability to recover from heroin abuse can depend on a number of factors:
- How long the drug has been used
- How high the dosage has been during active use
- The person’s individual state of health
- How much damage has been caused by the degree of use
For example, a person who has been using high doses of the drug and experienced bouts of hypoxia may have experienced a degree of brain damage that can last for the rest of the person’s life. In addition, regular use of heroin can cause long-term or even permanent damage to the opioid system in the brain, leading to depression and lasting, intense cravings for the drug, which always present a risk of relapse.
Relapsing after long-term heroin abuse is also a risk. Many people, after going through complete detox from the drug, will try to return to their last dosage before they stopped use of the drug. However, when tolerance has worn off, this dosage can be too much for the body to handle, leading to a potentially fatal overdose.
Getting Help for Heroin Abuse
Stopping heroin abuse as soon as possible provides the greatest opportunity to avoid these challenges and risks of long-term heroin abuse and addiction. However, trying to stop alone, without support, is not recommended due to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings that occur. This can be eased by getting the help of an experienced, research-based rehab program.
There is a wide range of support that can help a person through the process of quitting heroin, from medical detox that diminishes withdrawal symptoms, to mental and physical therapies to lessen the power of cravings and help the body recover from some of the physical damage caused by the drug. With a certified, reputable treatment program, a person struggling with heroin abuse can take steps forward to achieve recovery and avoid the risks of long-term addiction to heroin.