How to Help a Heroin Addict

Understanding how to deal with a heroin addict can be a trying process. Heroin is a potent, highly-addictive drug, and users put themselves and others at risk in pursuit of it. As with any addiction, a person’s mind is chemically altered by heroin abuse. They may cease to act like themselves anymore. Consequently, they greatly endanger their physical and mental health, along with running into social and legal consequences as a result of their use.

Heroin addiction exists across many socioeconomic demographics. Part of its danger lies in its ability to create a physical addiction within a very short span compared to other drugs. This is why it becomes so difficult to quit for many people. Fortunately, there are many avenues of treatment and ways of understanding how to overcome heroin addiction.

Educating yourself on heroin abuse and treatment will allow you to determine your next steps. If someone in your life is suffering from a heroin abuse issue, please reach out to us at (912)214-3867 for support. Trained clinicians can help guide you along the right path for you and the person you care about.

Heroin as a Disease

Opioid abuse disorder is a recognized health issue. Unfortunately, the number of people who meet the criteria for diagnosis is on the rise. The number of symptoms that an addict exhibit allows professionals to label their use in a range from mild to severe. In the opioid family, heroin also causes major tolerance issues and extreme physical dependency. It is one of the most dangerous illegal substances on the market.

When learning how to deal with a heroin addict, you’ll quickly realize that their drug-seeking behavior occurs regardless of consequences. Finding and consuming the drug becomes the addict’s primary goal in life. People who inject heroin may engage in needle sharing, which has led to an HIV epidemic in intravenous users. Therefore, it’s important that your concerns for the addict center on regaining healthy habits.

Along with other opioids, heroin use disorder is known for its high rate of relapse and an uncontrollable drive to seek more of the drug. Relapses occur commonly among heroin users for this reason. Like any other chronic illness, people who need help often lose their way and re-engage in destructive behaviors. However, it doesn’t mean treatment has failed simply because a relapse has occurred. But addicts might need convincing that re-entering treatment is their best option in addressing how to overcome heroin addiction.

Sometimes users have comorbid disorders like depression or severe anxiety, and in an attempt to alleviate symptoms, they develop an addiction. Fortunately, there are non-addictive alternatives to heroin that can help with symptoms of mental illness, which you can learn about by consulting a doctor or trained professional.

Identifying Heroin Addiction

Regrettably, heroin use is on the rise. In 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 948,000 people reported using heroin, and 170,000 of them took their first hit during the previous year. When trying to figure out how to deal with a heroin addict, the first step is to positively identify the problem. Then you can seek advice on how to help them overcome heroin addiction.

Questions to figure out if your loved one has an issue include:

  • Do they keep increasing the amount of heroin taken and time spent doing drugs?
  • Do they spend the majority of their time obtaining, using, and recovering from use?
  • Have they lost the ability to manage responsibilities at home, work, and school?
  • Do they seem unconcerned that their drug use is putting them in dangerous situations?
  • Are they aware of physical and mental issues caused by the drug but continue to use anyway?
  • Do they exhibit uncontrollable cravings for heroin?

Users may also leave physical signs behind. Signs can include equipment used for heroin consumption (also known as “works”). It may consist of needles, charred-looking spoons, gauze, and small baggies used to store the drugs. A person may have even tried to quit already but found themselves unable to. If you notice more than a few of these signs or physical evidence, it likely indicates a serious issue. The next steps consist of understanding how to deal with a heroin addict.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illegal substance made from the processing of morphine. Morphine itself is a natural compound found in the seeds of poppy plants. In its consumable form, heroin is a white or brown powder. It is typically mixed with other compounds and chemicals. Common things that heroin is cut with include powdered milk, sugar, starch, and quinine.

Pure heroin is white and bitter and is primarily produced in South America and Southeast Asia. “Black tar” heroin is a dark substance that is sticky or rock hard and it is mainly produced in Mexico. The darkness of black tar heroin is caused by impurities left behind during crude processing. When heroin has impurities, it is usually diluted or dissolved so it can be injected. When a heroin addict begins using the drug, it is generally snorted since needle use may be intimidating or carry certain stigmas. However, a user is still susceptible to overdose when taking heroin by any method.

Physiology and Heroin

Biology of Heroin Abuse

Heroin abuse creates dependency by changing the physical composition of the brain. This creates imbalances in the body’s hormones and neurological processes. These changes are difficult to undo. Research has shown that the brain’s white matter deteriorates with prolonged use. This may explain the corrosion of decision-making capacity in abusers. It may also explain changes in stress regulation and emotional turmoil. Most heroin addicts lose their self-control and can no longer regulate their heroin intake as a result of these shifts in brain chemistry.

Tolerance develops rapidly because the body adapts so fast to the drug’s presence. Severe withdrawals become an issue with users who try to quit. It often comes with physical discomfort so strong that their only relief comes from the drug itself. Heroin is addictive in any of its forms, and people who inject or smoke the drug are at the greatest risk. These methods allow the drug to reach the brain quicker than snorting, thus creating a more powerful (and potentially deadly) effect.

Physical Symptoms from Heroin

Withdrawal symptoms appear a few hours after the drug is consumed. They typically include:

  • Restlessness
  • Involuntary leg movements
  • Goosebumps and cold flashes
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

The most severe withdrawal symptoms will happen one to two days after use and generally ease up after a week of sobriety. Unfortunately, some users with severe addiction will experience withdrawals for weeks or even months.

How to Help the Body

Users might receive medication to help with their addiction. Methadone is the most commonly prescribed medication to help wean addicts from heroin. Medication can aid a person in detoxing more comfortably and help curve cravings. Subsequently, the negative physical withdrawal symptoms are reduced, and the user’s compulsion to relapse lessens.  The prescription drugs used to help addicts utilize the same opioid receptors in the brain that the drug uses. Supervised medications are safer than heroin use because they aren’t as addictive, have milder side effects, and are prescribed based on an individual’s symptoms.

Pharmacological Answers to Addiction

Types of Medications Used

There are three branches of avoidance drugs: agonists, partial agonists, and antagonists. Agonists stimulate opioid receptors in the brain, and partial agonists do the same, but on a smaller scale. Antagonists block opioid receptors, so drug use doesn’t create the rewarding side effects users seek.


Methadone is an agonist that is taken orally and is popular because it is slow acting. It creeps into the brain and counteracts the high users want while alleviating withdrawals. Methadone has been on the market since the 1960s and is typically an option for users that do not respond well to other treatments. Its only legal means of distribution is through licensed outpatient centers, and patients must attend every day to receive their regular dose.


Buprenorphine counteracts cravings without producing intoxication. It is a partial agonist, and the brand name is Suboxone. Suboxone contains naloxone and is an antagonist that is consumed either sublingually or orally. It can be administered via an implant under the skin that lasts 6 months.

It is most effective in deterring users from injecting heroin. If a user attempts to inject Suboxone, it causes withdrawals, which encourages users to take it orally. Typically, it is purchased from pharmacies and is more accessible than methadone. Suboxone is also available in generic form and administered through a monthly injection.


A popular antagonist is Naltrexone, but it’s usually only effective as a preventative treatment after detox. It renders heroin ineffective, does not cause addiction, and isn’t sedating. Since it doesn’t help with withdrawals, this medication isn’t a great frontline treatment because patients are still in the early stages of addiction. An injectable form called Vivitrol is available and is administered once every month. This helps with continued sobriety as it helps curb cravings for a variety of substances.

Rehabilitation Methodologies and Heroin

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in conjunction with medication has proven to be an effective way to treat heroin addicts. CBT helps to unlearn drug-seeking behaviors by changing reward expectations and altering behavior. Addicts learn how to cope with stress without relying on being intoxicated.

Contingency management is also valuable and is a voucher-based program where addicts earn points when they pass a drug screen. These points are then exchanged for items that support sobriety. It seems tempting to force a heroin addict into treatment when you’re debating how to deal with a heroin addict, however, forceful interventions from friends, family, and courts are often ineffective.

Incentivized rewards in exchange for doctor’s visits are more effective. It eliminates the risk of a confrontation escalating into violence or isolation. Heroin abusers are terrified of having their drugs taken away. However, an addict is more likely to listen to a professional about how to overcome heroin addiction because the conversation isn’t dominated by emotions, accusations, or fear.

What to Expect From Treatment

Once a heroin abuser enters treatment, they go through detoxification and receive medications to help them get off of the drug. This is vital since a clouded mind will not be capable of learning the tools needed for full rehabilitation. Detoxification is painful, so one way you can show that you know how to love a heroin addict is by reassuring them that they’ll get through withdrawals.

If relapse occurs, don’t give up. Learning how to love a heroin addict means you may have to support their efforts to get treatment repeatedly. Each treatment attempt will help professionals adjust the individualized program designed to address what to do with a heroin addict. Additionally, the specific therapies used for your friend or family member will be better attuned to personalized issues.

You Can Seek Answers

To sum up, how heroin affects the brain and which treatment methodologies are right for specific people is well understood. It’s important to remember that heroin abuse can be successfully treated. You can figure out how to love a heroin addict by offering them the means to stop using through rehabilitation.

Reassuring an abuser that detoxification and rehabilitation will help end their nightmare is a good plan for what to do with a heroin addict. Even if the heroin addict relapses, rehabilitation is still possible. To find answers and support, call 912-214-3867 and speak directly with an addiction expert versed on how to deal with a heroin addict. They are available right now to talk you through any of your concerns.


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serotonin and drug use both have an effect on the brain's neurotransmitterswithdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol can be a painful process both physically and mentally