If you or a loved one are struggling with using heroin, you may be wondering what constitutes heroin addiction.
Several variables can be factored in when determining whether a person is addicted to heroin, but it all comes down to the individual.
Heroin addiction can look different for everyone, and there is no one definition of what an addiction to heroin is.
An important note: We avoid stigmatic language like “addict” or “heroin user” as much as possible. However, we will use this language in this article to inform and equip those struggling with drug use and their loved ones.
Learn more about heroin abuse and addiction
Behavioral Changes Within Heroin Addicts
Often one of the first signs of heroin addiction is a behavior change.
If you find yourself or someone you love displaying any of the following behavioral changes, it may be a sign of heroin addiction.
Read more about common heroin addict behaviors
Changes In Social Habits
If a person usually participates in certain social activities (such as attending church or a regular gathering of friends) and suddenly or gradually stops going, this may be a sign of addiction.
Heroin dependence can lead a person to fall through on obligations such as work, school, family functions, or other social factors.
Of course, looking strictly at one change in social behavior will not prove whether addiction is involved. Missing a family birthday party does not necessarily mean a person is abusing heroin.
It’s important to consider behavior change in the context of physical, emotional, mental, and other behavioral changes.
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Attempting To Quit Heroin
One sign of substance abuse is attempting and failing to quit a substance.
If someone who is using heroin has tried to quit, but can’t seem to stop their heroin use, they may be addicted to the substance.
Often, if a person frequently tries to quit a powerful opioid such as heroin on their own, it can be extremely difficult, isolating, and painful.
This is why the support of friends, family, and an addiction treatment program is so important in recovery.
Are People Who Abuse Heroin Dangerous?
As with the abuse of any drugs, an addiction to heroin can make people more susceptible to crime, violence, and risky behavior that they otherwise might not participate in.
While a person who’s addicted to heroin might engage in riskier activities, they are not necessarily dangerous or violent.
This largely depends on what a person’s drug-seeking behaviors look like. For some, this can include violence and crime as they attempt to get more heroin or the money to purchase it.
Read more about violence caused by heroin addiction
Recognizing High-Functioning People Who Abuse Heroin
A “high-functioning” addict can be defined as someone who abuses substances and still carries on with regular life activities.
Looks can be deceiving, because being high-functioning rarely means being mentally, physically, and emotionally well.
Read more about how to recognize a high-functioning heroin addict
Who Is At Risk Of Becoming A Heroin Addict?
Heroin is a powerful opioid drug, and anyone who abuses this substance can develop an addiction or physical dependence on the substance.
However, there are a few groups of people who are considered at a greater risk of addiction to heroin due to certain biological and social factors.
A person is more likely to become addicted to heroin if they:
- have a low income or live in poverty
- are unemployed
- have a personal or family history of substance abuse
- have a personal or family history of mental health issues
- have a history of crime
- are young
- socialize with high-risk people
- use tobacco frequently
- are going through a stressful time in life
- have previously gone through drug or alcohol rehab
Women are also more likely to form an addiction to opioids than men.
Slang Terms Commonly Used To Describe Heroin Addicts
People who abuse heroin can be known by many different names.
A few of these include:
- channel swimmer
- cotton shooter
Read more about common slang used for heroin addicts
Physical Signs Of A Heroin Addict
Heroin can cause a range of noticeable physiological impacts on a person’s body. Look out for these signs if you’re worried about heroin use in yourself or a loved one.
Physical signs of heroin abuse include:
- needle tracks
- pinpoint pupils
- dry mouth
- chapped lips
Physical Impacts Of Heroin Abuse
Heroin addiction can be identified through various physical responses in the body and gradual changes over time.
Physical Dependence On Heroin
If a person who uses heroin experiences withdrawal when they stop using the substance, this is a sign of heroin addiction and abuse.
Additionally, addiction may be present if a person uses heroin to self-medicate those withdrawal symptoms and feel normal again, thus continuing the cycle of abuse.
Building A Tolerance To Heroin
As the body becomes used to being supplied with the chemicals in heroin on a daily or semi-regular basis, it will begin to build up a tolerance for the substance.
As tolerance is built, the body and brain will need increasingly larger doses of heroin to feel the same euphoria as with the first use.
Risk Of Long-Term Health Problems For Heroin Addicts
Abusing heroin can lead to many long-term health complications.
Some of the possible long-term impacts of heroin abuse include:
- developing infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis
- opioid overdose
- kidney disease
Heroin overdose can be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal.
Can I Become Addicted To Heroin After One Use?
It’s not possible to become addicted to heroin (or any substance) after just one use.
An addiction or physical dependence occurs when the body requires those substances to function, which happens over time across multiple uses.
The body will not develop a need for heroin after one use.
Mental And Emotional Impacts Of Heroin Abuse
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one are addicted to heroin, several mental and emotional effects can occur that point to addiction.
Seek professional help for yourself or your loved one if you notice any of the following.
Over time, the effects of heroin can change the brain. The opioid binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and releases dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of reward and motivation.
As a person continues to use heroin, the brain will not supply the same level of dopamine.
When the drug is removed, a person will experience major physical and mental cravings to supply that same feeling again.
Heroin Can Lead To Depression
Heroin can lead to and worsen existing feelings of depression.
According to a 2018 study published by the Cambridge University Press, 48% of those addicted to opiates experience a lifetime history of depressive disorder.
What’s more, a person may use heroin to cope with the depression that the drug caused. This can lead to a further spiraling of negative emotional and mental impacts.
Some People May Become Suicidal
A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that those who abuse heroin are 14 times more likely than their peers to die from suicide.
Substance abuse can feel extremely lonely and hopeless. In many addiction treatment programs, dual diagnosis treatment centers can help to address these emotional and mental impacts.
Heroin’s Impact On Aging
Heroin can significantly decrease a person’s life expectancy.
A 2008 study revealed that those who were addicted to heroin lost on average 18.3 years of potential life before reaching 65.
The three largest factors that were found to reduce life-span include:
- chronic liver disease
Read more about the life expectancy of a heroin addict
How To Support A Loved One With A Heroin Addiction
A person struggling with the use of heroin needs community and strong support systems to recover from addiction.
If someone you love is addicted to heroin, you’re not alone. There are many ways you can continue to love and support them.
Helping Someone With Heroin Addiction
Whether it’s a family member, a friend, a student, or someone you’ve just met, there are many ways you can help anyone struggling with opioid use.
Assist them in finding a comprehensive drug treatment program, locate support groups such as narcotics anonymous (NA), and offer to drive them to doctor’s visits.
Read more about how to help a heroin addict
Living With Someone Who Is Abusing Heroin
Living with someone addicted to heroin, such as a family member, can be emotionally trying on those involved.
Many people worry that they might be enabling a person with an addiction.
Enabling happens when a person supports someone with an addiction to the extent that the addicted individual no longer fears the consequences of using or relapsing.
This can put a lot of unwanted pressure on the other members of the family, as it can be difficult to judge what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in the home.
Dating Someone Who Is Recovering From Heroin Addiction
If you are dating someone who’s recovering from heroin abuse, it’s important to set boundaries and seek outside help.
Be sure to help your partner to seek guidance from medical professionals, counselors, and other support systems in addition to your love and support.
Supporting A Teen Who Is Struggling With Heroin Addiction
For a teen dealing with heroin addiction, first, assist them in identifying the heroin addiction.
Then, get help from both a medical and emotional standpoint. Find a rehab center, counseling program, or another source of emotional support, and seek help from a health care professional.
Supporting A Pregnant Woman Addicted To Heroin
With someone who’s pregnant, the health of both the mother and the unborn child is at stake.
Using an opioid such as heroin can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which causes opioid withdrawal in the child once they’re born.
To support a pregnant woman who’s been abusing heroin, help them to find medications to help them get off heroin, prenatal care, and an addiction treatment program.
Diagnosing Heroin Addiction
If you’re unsure whether you or a loved one have a heroin addiction, there are a few ways this can be diagnosed.
This can be done by:
- evaluation and assessment by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a licensed drug counselor
- drug screening
- meeting criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
Once a drug addiction has been diagnosed, a person can move forward with a recovery plan. This often involves prescription opioids used for detox, social therapies, and behavioral therapies.
Medications that can be used for heroin addiction treatment include:
- buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv)
- naltrexone (Vivitrol)
Get Treatment For Heroin Addiction
The first step to getting help is recognizing an addiction. If you or someone you love are ready to move forward in recovery from heroin abuse, reach out to us.
Several treatment programs can treat heroin addiction, including:
- medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
- aftercare/continuing care/relapse prevention
- outpatient rehab (including standard outpatient, intensive outpatient, and partial hospitalization)
- long-term residency with an inpatient rehab program
- treatment that focuses on dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders
To learn more, just call our helpline. Our representatives are ready to take your questions and guide you or your loved one toward the right addiction treatment program.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Cambridge University Press—Treating depression complicated by substance misuse
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Heroin
- Mayo Clinic—How opioid addiction occurs
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—DrugFacts: Heroin
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—If You Have a Problem with Drugs: For Teens and Young Adults
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—What are the unique needs of pregnant women with substance use disorders?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)—MAT Medications, Counseling, and Related Conditions
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed—Suicide among heroin users: rates, risk factors and methods
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed—Years of Potential Life Lost among Heroin Addicts 33 Years after Treatment