Is Heroin Addictive?
What Makes It So Addictive?
When heroin enters the bloodstream, it moves quickly to the brain, where it interacts with proteins called opioid receptors. When these receptors are activated, a person experiences sensations of reward and pleasure that normally accompany and, in turn, encourage basic human survival activities, such as eating and sex.1
When opioid receptors are widely activated, the brain is flooded with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The surge in dopamine is accompanied by an immediate rush of euphoria. Scientists once believed that it was this pleasure alone that was the driving force behind addiction. But recent theories suggest that other parts of the brain are also involved in addiction.2
When the brain releases dopamine, other parts of the brain responsible for storing memories are activated. The memory of pleasure becomes associated with the circumstances or location where the person used the drugs. This memory mechanism is thought to be involved with the formation of cravings, causing the person to want to use again when they come across the same or similar environment.2
Building a Tolerance
After repeated exposure to heroin, the brain’s opioid receptors become less responsive and their activation results in less of a dopamine release than they did before. Known as tolerance, this is what causes repeat heroin users to increase their dose to achieve the same effects.1
Developing a Dependence
When a person uses heroin for any extended period of time, their body also develops dependence. When this occurs, their body will begin to feel and function normally only when they have heroin in their system. When they try to stop taking heroin, or decrease the dose, they will begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal.1
The many uncomfortable symptoms of heroin withdrawal are another major driving factor behind addiction. People often keep using just to avoid the inevitable onset of withdrawal.1
Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:3
- Trouble sleeping.
- Muscle aches.
- Watery eyes.
- Runny nose.
- Dilated pupils.
- Goose bumps.
- Abdominal cramps.
Though physical dependence alone doesn’t necessarily mean that an addiction is present, it often accompanies and promotes the development of the problematic patterns of drug seeking and use that underlie addiction. Dependence may become a part of a larger addiction at the point that someone finds themselves compulsively seeking out heroin and is unable or unwilling to quit despite facing negative consequences.5
Can You Get Addicted the First Time?
It is highly unlikely for heroin addiction to take hold after the first use. An addiction takes time to develop.
At first, people may use heroin repeatedly because of the feelings of pleasure and reward from the drug. Over time, as dependence sets in, the person may begin to use on a daily basis to stave off withdrawal. Long-term use creates changes in the brain that reinforce compulsive use and the inability to stop using in spite of harm to the user’s life. 1
There is no exact amount of time that it takes for a person to become addicted to heroin. The rate at which people become addicted also depends on a variety of other factors, including how much they are using and how often. Researchers estimate that about 23% of people who use heroin become addicted.4
Recognizing the Symptoms of a Problem
There are many signs and symptoms of heroin addiction. If you think you or someone you know has a problem with heroin, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you finding that it is taking more and more of the drug to get you high?
- Have you seen your relationships deteriorate as a result of your heroin use?
- Have you ever stolen money or engaged in criminal behavior to support your heroin habit?
- Has your performance at work or school suffered as a result of using heroin?
- Do you find yourself unable to focus on anything but finding your next heroin dose and getting high?
- Do you feel out of control when you use heroin?
- Are you continuing to use heroin even though it is negatively affecting your life?
- Do you experience intense drug cravings?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to consider speaking to a doctor, counselor, or other substance abuse treatment professional for further evaluation for addiction.
Finding the Right Treatment Option
If you’re suffering from a heroin addiction, you may feel that the situation is hopeless. But people can and do recover.
Heroin rehab facilities offer treatment that helps people get clean, better understand their addiction, and develop coping skills to avoid using drugs in the future. For example, many users can develop triggers or cues that make them crave heroin even after they have gotten sober. Rehab programs can give users the tools to resist these urges and remain clean.
Rehab programs can also help a person understand why they were driven to use drugs and how they can make positive changes in their life, such as surrounding themselves with people who do not use drugs so that they are not tempted to use again in the future.
If you or someone you love is suffering from an addiction to heroin, contact a professional heroin rehab center today.
- Kosten TR, George TP. (2002). The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Science & Practice Perspectives.
- Harvard Medical School. (2011). How Addiction Hijacks the Brain.
- National Institutes of Health. (2016). Opiate and Opioid Withdrawal.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). Heroin.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drug Abuse and Addiction.