What is Causing the Heroin Epidemic

No matter what part of the country you live in, every time you turn on the news, you are sure to hear a story about the rise in heroin use, the latest heroin overdose death, or how Narcan — a heroin antidote — was credited for saving someone’s life.

While the stories about the influx of heroin use have become commonplace in recent years, you may wonder what has caused this sudden increase in the use of this highly addictive and deadly narcotic, especially if you have a loved one that has become addicted to it. The question on the minds of so many is this: What is causing the heroin epidemic?

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What is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid-derived narcotic that is produced from morphine, a substance that is extracted from the Asian poppy plant. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that there are two different variations of heroin:

  1. Pure heroin, which is a white powder that is usually snorted or smoked.
  2. Black tar, which is usually injected into the veins.

Heroin has been classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meaning that it offers no medical benefit, is highly addictive, and extremely dangerous.

heroin schedule 1 classification

The Rise in Heroin Use

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the use of heroin in the United States has increased among men and women of all age groups and all income levels. The statistics related to heroin use are startling:

heroin overdose deaths in 2014

  • In 2011, an estimated 4.2 million people in the U.S., 12 years or older, had experimented with heroin at least once in their lives. Of the people who try heroin, approximately 23 percent become addicted to the drug, as per the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • The CDC reports that between 2002 and 2013, death as a result of heroin overdose quadrupled. Heroin-overdose claimed the lives of more than 8,200 people in 2013.
  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), states that in 2014, a total of 10,574 deaths in the United States were caused by heroin overdose.
  • 50 percent of the people who use heroin are addicted to it.
  • More than 914,000 Americans reported using heroin in 2014; 145 percent more than those who reported using the drug in 2007.

These are just a few examples that illustrate a growing problem in the United States. Statistics like these are the foundation of what has been coined the “Heroin Epidemic.”

heroin epidemic statistics

The Causes of Heroin Addiction

A one and only specific cause for heroin addiction has not been identified. However, there are several factors that are believed to play a key role in how individuals become dependent on the deadly drug.

These factors include:

  • Genetics. Individuals related to someone who is addicted to heroin or other substances have an increased risk of becoming addicted to heroin.

heroin addiction genetics

  • Biology. A person’s biological makeup can lead to heroin addiction. Some people do not produce enough natural endorphins in their brians, which can lead to heroin use and abuse. In addition, a person’s ethnicity, gender, development stage, and genes can be a contributing factor.

biologic heroin addiction

  • Psychological. Underlying mental illness that has not been diagnosed – bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, for example – may be related to heroin use and abuse. Those who suffer from mental illnesses may be inclined to use heroin in order to sedate the side-effects of their illness.
  • Environmental. Those who are in the presence of other heroin users may be more inclined to try the drug. They may be curious about its effects, or they may believe that it is the “right” and “normal” thing to do.

What Does “Addicted” Mean?

Addiction is defined as the physical and physiological need to use a substance. A person who is addicted to a substance is unable to abstain from using that substance. In the case of heroin, the more an individual uses the drug, the more the body produces opioid-receptors. This happens to meet the demand of the overabundance of opioids in the system.
The brain also tricks the body into believe that it no longer has to produce its own pain-reducing and pleasure-giving chemicals, because the heroin has taken over this job. As a result, the body needs heroin to function. If the drug is absent, severe and life-threatening withdrawals can occur because the body is struggling to become accustomed to the absence of the substance it has come to depend on.

addiction definition

Signs of Heroin Addiction

The signs and symptoms of heroin addiction vary from person to person, and they are also dependent on how much, how frequently, and how long an individual has abused the drug.
Some of most prominent signs of addiction include:

symptoms of heroin addiction

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constant itching
  • Excessive dry mouth
  • Decreased activity levels
  • The development of abscesses and infections on the skin
  • Problems with the heart
  • The appearance of needle marks and bruising at the injection site
  • Collapsed veins
  • Tooth loss
  • Weight loss
  • An overall decline in physical appearance
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not taken, including convulsions, anxiety, sweating, and gastrointestinal problems

Are Prescription Painkillers to Blame?

Research suggests that there is a definite correlation between prescription painkillers and the increased use and abuse of heroin; specifically, opioid painkillers.

Opioid painkillers are the most powerful – and most addictive – type of prescription painkillers. They contain compounds that are similar to opium, the key compound in heroin. These medications have the same effect on the nervous system as the opium poppy plant, which heroin is derived from. Prescription painkillers impact the transmission of nerve signals on the nervous system, thus decreasing feelings of pain. Many prescription painkillers also stimulate the part of the brain that causes sensations of pleasure, causing a “high” that many people find enjoyable.

Powerful opioid prescription painkillers include:

  • Oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (e.g. Vicoden)
  • Meperidine (e.g. Demerol)
  • Hydromorphone (e.g. Dilaudid)
  • Propoxyphene (included in Darvon, Darvocet)
  • Morphine (e.g. Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin+

The pleasurable “high” that many prescription opioid-painkillers produce is similar to the “high” that heroin produces. This, coupled with the fact that there has been a sharp increase in the availability of prescription painkillers in recent years, has led to in-depth research on the link between painkillers and heroin use. The findings of this research show a strong connection between the two.

The 2016 Opioid Addiction Facts & Figures from the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) illustrates a definite connection between opioid-painkillers and heroin.

  • Four out of five people who use heroin first misused prescription painkillers.
  • 94 percent of people who responded to a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction stated that they opted to use heroin because prescription opioid-painkillers are more expensive and harder to find than heroin.

misuse of prescription painkillers

Because opioid-painkillers are so highly addictive, and since they cause the same euphoria as heroin, it is not unusual for people who take prescription pain medications to turn to heroin to achieve the same high, especially when they are no longer able to acquire or afford pain pills.

Also of note is the fact that legal medications, like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone are more socially “acceptable” to take. Teenagers, for example, may access a parent’s medication and try it because they are curious. Upon realizing that they enjoy the feeling that these medications cause, they may seek to chase that feeling repeatedly. However, once they lose access or ability to afford the medications, they may turn to the cheaper and easier to find heroin. It is this very reason that many researchers refer to prescription opioids as a “gateway” drug to heroin use.

What Causes Heroin Overdose?

Heroin overdose is not new. What is new is the growing incidence of overdose. Many researchers and medical health professionals believe that the link between prescription painkillers and heroin could play a part in the incidence of overdose. However, this connection is still being thoroughly researched.

The risk of a heroin overdose also increases the longer a person uses the drug. After three decades of heroin use, more than 15 percent of heroin uses have died.

Heroin Overdose Defined

An overdose refers to taking a dangerous amount of any type of substance. Both people who have recently started using heroin and long-term heroin users can overdose on the drug.

heroin use and overdose

In new users, overdose can occur because they may take more than they intended. In long-term users who have developed a tolerance, an overdose can occur when they take more of the drug to achieve the “high” that they desire. In either case, the reason for overdose is directly related to the desire to achieve that “feel good” effect that heroin creates.

The effects of heroin can make you calm, and even make you sleepy. But if you take too much and fall asleep, you run the risk of having your respiratory system shut down when your body, under the influence of too much heroin, “forgets” to breathe.

Signs and Symptoms of a Heroin Overdose

There are several signs and symptoms that indicate a person has overdosed on heroin. These signs include:

  • Breathing difficulties, including shallow breaths, or decreased breathing
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dilated pupils
  • A marked drop in blood pressure
  • Lowered heart rate
  • Marked sleepiness
  • Spasms in the muscles
  • Dry mouth
  • Disorientation
  • Bluish color in the mouth and fingernails

How to Handle a Heroin Overdose

If you believe that someone is overdosing on heroin, it is important to take swift action. Call 911 immediately, or take the individual to the hospital. Delayed treatment of a heroin overdose can lead to death.

delayed overdose treatment and death
Upon seeking medical help, it is important to provide responders or medical health professionals with as much information about the individual as possible, including:

  • The age of the patient
  • His or her weight
  • The current condition of the individual
  • How much heroin was taken, if you know
  • When the person took the heroin

Narcan (the brand name for naloxone,) is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antidote for heroin overdose. It is injected under the skin or into a muscle, and quickly reverses the effects of overdose. This antidote can be administered by police, healthcare professionals, or the family and caregivers of the person.

Effects of an Overdose

The effects of an overdose can vary, and depend on how much heroin was taken, what type, how it was taken, and the type of treatment that the individual receives. For example, a person who receives prompt medical treatment, including the antidote for an overdose, can usually expect to recover fully within 24 to 48 hours. It is important to note that a prolonged time of frequent overdoses can result in death. In some cases, immediate medical treatment may not be able to reverse the effects of an overdose, and death can still result.
Factors that can impede recovery include:

  • What type of substances were mixed with the heroin
  • How the heroin was taken – For instance, if it was injected with a needle, serious infections can occur, such as brain, lung, and kidney abscesses, or an infection in the heart valves. Additionally, injecting heroin with needles that have been shared can lead to hepatitis, HIV, or AIDS.

After an Overdose

Upon recovering from an overdose, seeking treatment for a heroin problem from a holistic and private rehab center, like 12 Keys Rehab, is vital to the individual’s future health and well-being. If a friend or loved one has suffered – and survived – a heroin overdose, you can help.

Talk to the individual about treatment, including how important it is. Assist the individual in seeking treatment. If necessary, stage an intervention, and work with a qualified addiction rehab center to carry this out in the most effective manner.

The sooner a heroin overdose patient seeks treatment for his or her heroin use, the less likely he or she is to experience another overdose, and the greater the chances that he or she will be able to recover from the addiction.

Preventing and Combating the Heroin Epidemic

Given the rapid growth of heroin use, addiction, and overdose that has led to the current epidemic, the government, and society as a whole, are looking for ways to prevent further growth and combat the existing problem.

State Government’s Role

Many tactics have been put into effect to confront the heroin epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) states can – and should – play an integral part in preventing, and treating this national problem. The CDC suggests that each state should:

  • Acknowledge and address the problem with prescription opioid painkillers, which are known to be a “gateway” to heroin use.
  • Provide more access to heroin treatment programs.
  • Increase access to and training for the proper administration of Narcan.
  • Provide more access to prevention services.
  • Assist each local jurisdiction within the state with putting the aforementioned practices into place within their communities, especially communities where drug addiction is common.

The Federal Government’s Role

Battling the heroin epidemic is not something that should solely lie on the shoulders of state government; the federal government should also make efforts to combat the issue. The current presidential administration recognizes the impact of the heroin epidemic and has made strides in improving government’s role in combating this social problem.

In an effort to battle this ever-growing epidemic, the president has set out to increase access to medication-assisted options for treating opioid addictions, such as heroin and prescription painkillers. There is clear and definitive research that illustrates medication-assisted treatment options, combined with behavioral therapies, are a key component for helping those who are addicted to these substances achieve and sustain recovery. The federal government says that this action plan will not only treat heroin and opioid dependencies, but it will also prevent overdoses from occurring.

The federal government has also taken serious steps toward reducing the availability of prescription opioid pain medications. Medical professionals are closely monitored when prescribing these medications. Patients who receive these prescriptions are also closely assessed prior to receiving a medication, and are monitored once they have been given a prescription. Likewise, pharmacies and medical professionals are now required to do background checks prior to providing these medications. These checks allow professionals to identify questionable use of medications.

Other Methods for Prevention and Treatment of the Heroin Epidemic

Federal and state governments certainly play a key role in combating this current health crisis. While their initiatives have proven powerful, more can – and must – be done to confront and defeat the growing heroin epidemic.

Additional methods for battling the heroin epidemic can be issued at the local level, as well. Some of the methods that local governments use to join the fight against heroin include:

  • Offering educational programs within school and community settings. These programs educate the community about heroin use, the growing risk of this use, and how individuals can abstain from using it.
  • More aggressive efforts by local law enforcement officials toward the use of heroin and questionable prescription opioid-painkiller use.
  • Being aware of the activity within the community.

Each individual within a community can also take a stand in the fight against the heroin epidemic.

  • Parents should educate their children about the risk of heroin use, what they should do if they are in the presence of heroin, and how they can avoid being pressured into using the drug.
  • Family members and friends should be made aware of the signs and symptoms of heroin use and abuse. Should they suspect that a loved one is using heroin, they should take the proper actions to assist the individual in seeking treatment.
  • Individuals should know how to identify a heroin overdose. They should also know what to do in the event of an overdose (see above.)
    There is no denying that the heroin epidemic in the United States is an issue that has grave repercussions on individuals, as well as society. In order to battle this growing epidemic, serious efforts need to be made. The efforts that are currently being made have proven to be effective in reducing overdose rates. However, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to get the issue under control.

Getting Help for a Heroin Addiction

Being vigilant against heroin use is the most effective way any single person can effectively fight the heroin epidemic. However, if you are or a loved one is addicted to heroin, now is the time to turn to a rehab center for help. Roughly 90 percent of individuals who are addicted to heroin relapse if they try to stop on their own because it is so addicting.

12 Keys Rehab offers private rehab for heroin addiction with a comprehensive plan that addresses your mental, physical, and spiritual needs. Our recovery programs include medically-assisted detox, 12-step rehab, cognitive behavior therapy, and individual, group, and family therapy, and more. We also provide aftercare services that provide you with the tools and resources for a lasting recovery.

To learn more about the 12 Keys Rehab’s heroin addiction treatment program, contact us today.

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