Heroin Addiction and Abuse

Table of Contents

Heroin is among the most addictive substances and, while relatively inexpensive, those who develop an addiction to heroin can spend hundreds of dollars every day on this illicit narcotic.

This guide outlines how heroin addiction develops and shows you how to connect with science-backed heroin addiction treatment.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid and Schedule II controlled substance that’s derived from the morphine found in the seed pods of Asian opium poppies. These poppies are native to southern Asia, but they are also found in Afghanistan, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin is also known as brown, smack, or dark.

More pure forms of heroin come as white powder with a bitter taste. Most of this heroin is produced in South America. Black tar heroin is prevalent in Mexico. This darker and less pure form of heroin is processed using less refined techniques. The largest market for Mexican black tar is found among the western states.

Today, heroin is routinely cut with fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Heroin traffickers adulterate batches of the drug with fentanyl as it is cheap to produce and increases the potency of the product. Regrettably, this has contributed to a spike in opioid overdoses.

Pure forms of heroin are often smoked and sometimes snorted. Most street heroin is dissolved, diluted, and intravenously injected.

When heroin is mixed with cocaine, this is known as a speedball, an especially deadly combination.

How Addictive is Heroin?

Heroin is an addictive semi-synthetic opioid that triggers intense effects on the reward system of the brain. The intensity of these effects is the primary reason why heroin abuse and addiction and abuse are so widespread. According to the latest SAMHSA data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 1 million U.S. adults met the DSM-5-TR criteria for heroin addiction in 2021–more on this below.

Heroin use disrupts the reward system of the brain – the nucleus accumbens – by increasing the production of neurotransmitters or chemical messengers like dopamine. Ordinarily, the brain releases dopamine to reward behaviors associated with survival – eating, for instance. Neurotransmitters are also released to help counter pain.

The brain quickly starts associating heroin with the activation of chemicals like dopamine in the reward system. Over time and as addiction develops, you will require heroin to function normally and to prevent the presentation of withdrawal symptoms.

Some signs that a heroin addiction might be developing include:

  • Continuing use of heroin despite problems triggered by the drug.
  • Trying and failing to stop using heroin.
  • Tolerance to heroin forming.
  • Experiencing cravings for heroin.
  • Withdrawal symptoms manifesting in the absence of heroin.


Why is Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin is highly addictive because it acts on the brain’s reward system, leading to intense feelings of pleasure and euphoria. When you consume heroin, the substance rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds to your brain’s opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are involved in the regulation of pain, pleasure, and reward. This interaction releases a surge of dopamine in the brain, which reinforces the drug-taking behavior and creates a sense of pleasure and well-being.

Repeated use of heroin can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, causing the brain to become dependent on the drug to function normally. As a result, those who use heroin regularly may experience withdrawal symptoms such as intense cravings, anxiety, restlessness, and physical discomfort when they stop using the drug.

Beyond this, heroin use causes the rapid development of tolerance. When tolerance to an opioid like heroin forms, you will need more of the drug to achieve the same level of euphoria. This can quickly lead to addiction as individuals continue to use higher doses to achieve the desired effect, accelerating the development of physical dependence.

Additionally, heroin addiction is often associated with social, psychological, and environmental issues like stress, trauma, mental health disorders, and exposure to social situations that promote drug use. All of these factors may contribute to the development and maintenance of heroin addiction.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Here are some common signs of heroin addiction:

  • Physical symptoms: Constricted pupils, sudden weight loss, needle marks or scars on the arms, legs or feet, and frequent nosebleeds.
  • Behavioral symptoms: Decline in personal hygiene, social withdrawal or isolation, changes in sleeping patterns, and mood swings.
  • Psychological symptoms: Depression, anxiety, paranoia, and irritability.
  • Financial problems: Those struggling with heroin addiction often experience financial difficulties as a result of spending money on the drug.
  • Relationship problems: Heroin addiction can negatively affect personal relationships, including those with family, friends, and romantic partners.

Not everyone struggling with heroin addiction will exhibit all of these signs, and some people manage to hide their heroin addiction well. If you suspect that a loved one may have developed a problem with an opioid like heroin, consider assessing them according to the symptoms of heroin addiction. You should also voice your concerns with your loved one and suggest that they engage with professional help.

Heroin Addiction Symptoms

Heroin addiction (opioid use disorder) is diagnosed according to the symptoms outlined in DSM-5-TR (the revised fifth edition of APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

The DSM symptoms of heroin addiction are as follows:

  1. Using heroin in larger amounts than intended or for longer than planned.
  2. Trying and failing to reduce or discontinue use of heroin.
  3. Spending lots of time obtaining and using heroin.
  4. Experiencing intense cravings for heroin.
  5. Neglecting personal and professional commitments due to heroin use.
  6. Ongoing use of heroin even though it is creating problems in your relationships.
  7. Giving up social and recreational activities due to heroin use.
  8. Using heroin in dangerous situations.
  9. Tolerance developing so that you require more heroin to achieve the same effects.
  10. Withdrawal symptoms presenting in the absence of heroin.
  11. Continuing to use heroin even though it is triggering or inflaming a physical or mental health condition.

Signs of a Heroin Addict

Signs of a heroin addiction can vary from person to person and can be grouped as follows:

  • Personal
  • Psychological
  • Professional


  • Needle marks or track marks on arms or legs
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothing to hide needle marks
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and grooming
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Frequent flu-like symptoms
  • Financial problems, such as borrowing money or selling personal items


  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Lack of motivation or energy
  • Secretive behavior and lying
  • Decreased interest in activities once enjoyed


  • Absenteeism or lateness at work or school
  • Decline in work performance or grades
  • Difficulty completing tasks or assignments
  • Problems with coworkers or classmates
  • Increased accidents or mistakes on the job

How to Help a Heroin Addict

Helping a heroin addict can be challenging, but there are some steps you can take to support them in their ongoing recovery from opioid use disorder. Here’s how to help a heroin addict:

  • Educate yourself about addiction: Educating yourself about addiction can help you better understand what your loved one is going through and how you can best support them.
  • Encourage your loved one to seek professional help: It is vital to encourage your loved one to seek professional help from a medical or mental health professional who specializes in addiction treatment. This will typically involve detox followed by medication-assisted treatment in an inpatient or outpatient setting.
  • Provide emotional support: Let your loved one know that you care about them and are there to support them throughout their recovery journey. Be a good and active listener while offering encouragement, empathy, and understanding without judgment or confrontation.
  • Help them develop a sober support system: Encourage your friend or family member with a heroin addiction to connect with others in recovery, perhaps by attending support groups like NA (Narcotics Anonymous).
  • Create a safe and substance-free environment: Remove any drug paraphernalia from your home and make sure your loved one is not exposed to triggers such as people or places that they associate with drug use.

How to Get Help for Heroin Addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin addiction, it is beneficial to seek help as soon as possible due to the progressive nature of heroin addiction. Like all addictions, opioid use disorder typically gets worse if untreated. Here’s how to connect with help for heroin addiction:

  • Consult a healthcare professional: The first step to getting help for heroin addiction is to speak with a healthcare professional such as your primary care physician, an addiction specialist, or a mental health professional. They can provide information about treatment options and refer you to appropriate resources.
  • Reach out to addiction hotlines and helplines: There are many addiction hotlines and helplines available for those seeking help for heroin addiction. These services can provide information, support, and referrals to treatment resources.
  • Consider inpatient or outpatient heroin addiction treatment: Inpatient treatment involves remaining at a residential rehab facility while engaging with intensive treatment for heroin addiction. Evidence-based treatment will include MAT (medication-assisted treatment), counseling, and psychotherapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). Outpatient treatment involves attending treatment sessions at a rehab center while continuing to live at home. Both types of treatment can be effective for heroin addiction, and the best option depends on your circumstances and the severity of your heroin addiction.
  • Attend peer support groups: Support groups like NA can provide a supportive community for those in recovery from heroin addiction. Attending support groups can help you to stay motivated and connected to others who are undergoing similar experiences.

Remember that recovery from heroin addiction is an ongoing journey, and it may take time and effort to achieve lasting sobriety due to the high relapse rates of addictions. With the right treatment and support, though, you can overcome heroin addiction and thrive rather than merely survive in sober living. We can help you achieve this at California Detox.

Heroin Addiction Recovery at California Detox & Rehab

If you are addicted to heroin, we can help you fight back at California Detox in Laguna Beach.

Kickstart your recovery journey with a supervised detox at our licensed medical detox center. Access medications and continuous care to streamline the intensity of heroin withdrawal. After a week of detoxification, you can move directly into one of these heroin addiction treatment programs:

  • Residential rehab (inpatient programs)
  • PHPs (partial hospitalization programs)
  • IOPs (intensive outpatient programs)
  • Dual diagnosis treatment programs (for co-occurring disorders)
  • Virtual IOPs (remote rehab programs)

All California Detox treatment programs combine science-based and holistic treatments that include:

  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Psychotherapy
  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Holistic therapy
  • Aftercare

Build yourself the firmest foundation for recovery addiction at California Detox. Call 949.694.8305 today for immediate assistance and a supervised medical detox.

Table of Contents