Alcohol vs Heroin: The Lesser of Two Evils

Alcohol and Heroin are perhaps the two drugs that have the most devastating impact on the lives of the people that abuse them. It is human nature to wonder which substance is more dangerous, but it is important to keep in mind that each substance does immense damage to the abuser and indirectly, their loved ones as well. Throughout this discussion, it is important to remember that there is no “good” addiction.

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Alcohol Addiction Statistics

Alcohol enjoys a reputation as being a safe drug. Most people recognize it is classified as a drug, but they don’t associate it with the same negative images as, say, heroin. Alcohol is legal and perhaps the most widely used drug in our society. It is so popular, and has been for generations, that there is almost no stigma attached to consuming alcohol. Most people would tell you everyone does it, and it can be hard to tell how much is too much.


The discovery of alcohol dates back thousands of years, and it has always been part of cultural rituals around the world. The early use of alcohol was primarily medicinal, but in the eighteenth century that changed and recreational or social use of alcohol expanded. Except for a brief period during Prohibition, alcohol has always been consumed openly in the U.S. Even during Prohibition, alcohol consumption continued in private and, in fact, increased.

In recent decades, alcohol consumption continues to remain high. In 2015, 64 percent of adults consumed alcohol, which was slightly less than the rate of consumption in 1985, the highest recorded. The lowest rate recorded, 55 percent, was in 1958. Near the end of the Great Depression in 1939, 58 percent of adults used alcohol.

More recently, alcohol use continues to be popular, with a new trend being tracked. The prevalence of binge drinking, or imbibing large quantities of alcohol in a short time, is associated with alcohol abuse and addiction. While 70.7 percent of the population reported drinking alcohol during 2013, 24.6 percent of adults engaged in binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

It’s clear that alcohol consumption can lead to addiction as well as other serious health problems, though it is not clear at what rate alcohol consumers become addicts. Here are some alarming statistics from that NIAAA report about alcohol addiction:

  • 16.6 million adults were addicted to alcohol in 2013
  • 697,000 teens aged 12-17 were addicted to alcohol in 2013
  • Of the teens addicted to alcohol in 2013, approximately 385,000 were female
  • 30.8 percent of all driving fatalities in 2013 were alcohol related
  • 35.1 percent of all fifteen-year-olds have tried alcohol
  • 22.7 percent of those ages 12-20 drink at least once a month
  • 14.2 percent of them are binge drinkers

02Based on the usage statistics, there is no doubt alcohol remains a popular drug. It is legal, easily accessible and inexpensive. In some social circles, alcohol abuse is a rite of passage, the severity of which is overlooked. Some people expect their college-age children to engage in dangerous drinking practices as they proceed into adulthood.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

The history of alcohol addiction treatment is just as long as the history of its consumption. Early cultures recognized the problem and developed primitive means of dealing with it. Native Americans established sobriety circles to isolate and assist their tribal members with alcohol addiction. Some of these circles grew into abstinence-based organizations.

The recognition of alcohol addiction in the early 1800s lead to the establishment of treatment facilities similar to asylums, where afflicted people could be isolated from society. In those early days there were claims that addiction could be cured, but treatment methods were still very primitive. There wasn’t a lot of scientific evidence about the causes of addiction or how to reverse it.

In the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous grew out of a popular spiritual group, the Oxford Group, that was having some success with self-treatment. Founders developed a system including admitting wrong, prayer and meditation to guide themselves and each other away from alcohol. Bill W. Ebby formalized the system into a 12-step program after a spiritual awakening helped him overcome his own addiction to alcohol. Successful members of AA were later hired by major companies to help employees through the 12-step program.

The principles of the 12-step program still form the backbone of addiction treatment, and for the last half a century, that treatment has been primarily behavioral. Addiction mostly takes place in the brain, and brain science was slow to develop. Today, we are still learning about addiction, but treatment modalities are greatly advanced and scientifically supported.


Alcohol Addiction Recovery

Alcohol is considered by many to be a social drug that makes them feel more outgoing. In fact, alcohol is a depressant that has a slowing effect on many body systems. In the extreme, it can slow or even stop breathing and heart rate. By reducing inhibitions, alcohol can have a calming or relaxing effect. In larger doses, alcohol produces a high that can include hallucinations and blackouts.

In addition to addiction, alcohol abuse can cause these side effects:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke
  • Cirrhosis
  • Hepatitis
  • Cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Weakened immune system
  • Severe mood changes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression


Recovering from alcohol addiction can be a lengthy process. The detox step that comes first should always be monitored by a medical professional, since withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even deadly. Those symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Nightmares
  • Mood swings

05The more severe symptoms can be life-threatening. There is a death rate of 1 to 5 percent from alcohol withdrawal, with likelihood of death increasing when no medical assistance is involved.

Alcohol addiction recovery is a very personal journey. Most recovered addicts find they must abstain from alcohol completely to maintain their sobriety. After rehab, it is necessary to continue working in a recovery program through counseling, 12-step meetings or some other regular support system. In many cases, the body and brain can recover from any damage done by the alcohol. There are extreme situations, however, in which brain or organ damage can be permanent.

Heroin Addiction Statistics

In contrast to alcohol, heroin has a reputation for being a harmful drug to get involved with. The media shows images of heroin addicts being homeless, dirty and strung out. While alcohol is socially acceptable in most circles, most people consider heroin use to be hardcore and something to avoid.

Heroin has been around for over a century. It gained popularity in the 1960s with the surge of the drug culture in the U.S. Currently, heroin is re-surging due to increased production, robust trafficking efforts, and a lower price. The demographics of the heroin user are changing, as well.

In the 1960s, men represented 82.8 percent of heroin users. Based on current treatment statistics, heroin use is more evenly distributed between men and women today. Perhaps the biggest change in heroin users is race. In the 1960s, only about 40 percent of heroin users were white. Now the white population represents at least 90 percent of heroin users. The average age of heroin users has also increased over the last 40 years.

Heroin use in this country increased almost 150% from 2007 to 2013. The largest group of new heroin users is white females between the ages of 18 and 25 with an income of $20,000 or less. A majority of heroin users have combined heroin use with abuse of other substances.


Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin is an opioid derived from morphine. Morphine is a direct descendant of opium, an ancient drug created from the poppy plant. Morphine was originally developed to treat opium addiction. It was believed to be less addictive than opium. Later morphine was used as a strong pain reliever, but its addictive properties actually exceeded those of opium. Heroin was another attempt to harness the pain-relieving properties of the poppy plant without creating such a strong addiction.

Heroin mimics endorphins, a naturally occurring brain chemical that regulates pleasure. When the heroin reaches the receptors in the pleasure-centers of the brain, it floods the brain with this feel-good chemical. That is how heroin creates the euphoric high users crave. The intensity of the artificial brain chemicals cannot be duplicated by natural means.

With the added endorphins entering the brain frequently, the natural endorphin production slows down. In time, the brain is not able to produce a feeling of pleasure at all without heroin, and it requires more and more of the drug to reach the extreme levels of pleasure it craves.

It is possible for a user to form an addiction to heroin after just one use, but there are other health risks associated with heroin use as well. Some of the side effects of heroin include:

  • Constipation
  • Cold sweats
  • Itching
  • Loss of memory
  • Pustules on the face
  • Depression
  • Coma
  • Tooth decay and gum disease
  • Weakened immune system
  • Impotence

Heroin use can also be fatal. Between 2001 and 2014, the death rate from heroin overdoses rose, with the most significant increases in the last three years. In 2014, there were more than 10,000 overdose deaths from heroin in the U.S.


Heroin Addiction Recovery

Like other addictions, heroin addiction is generally treated with a combination of modalities. It is important to detoxify the body and engage behavioral therapies to alter patterns of conduct. There are medicinal therapies available to help with detox and withdrawal symptoms, but accomplishing detox alone does not ensure a successful recovery.

The step-down approach to heroin detox can reduce withdrawal symptoms, making it safer, but medical supervision is always recommended for any drug detox. Reducing the amount of heroin in the system slowly can also help with cravings. An abrupt detox from heroin is likely to result in cravings that are too strong to be overcome.

08Detox without any other treatment does not have a good success rate, either. Addiction is a mental illness that often conceals underlying mental conditions. Any mental illness that goes untreated will not spontaneously resolve. More likely, it will get worse.

Relapse is a common concern in addiction recovery regardless of the substance. In the case of heroin, there is a high risk of overdose in relapse. During recovery, sometimes a person recovering from addiction cannot resist the cravings for heroin and think they could just use one more time and then get right back into their program.

The last time they used, however, their system was full of heroin. Now they have gone through detox and their body has begun to adjust to the lack of synthetic chemicals. A person recovering from addiction no longer knows what their tolerance is for the drug and can easily overdose accidentally.

Recovery From Alcohol vs. Heroin

Addiction recovery from any substance follows the same basic path: detox, behavioral therapy, education and strategies to avoid relapse. Addiction is a complicated process we continue to learn more about. For decades, we believed alcohol addiction was different from other drugs and physical addiction was the only dangerous condition.

Physical addiction seems a bit more tangible and scientific to prove. It means when the substance of choice is withdrawn from the body, physical symptoms emerge. Physical addiction is a sign the body chemistry changed in response to the presence of the drug, and it can no longer regulate itself properly without it. Of course, in time the body will adapt to the drug-free conditions, but in the interim there can be symptoms such as:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Cold sweats
  • Tremors

But in the absence of physical addiction, it is still possible to be mentally addicted to a substance. This means you think you need to keep taking it, and this type of addiction can be just as powerful and life-threatening. In most cases, addiction involves both physical and mental components, which is why it is important to treat both mind and body in recovery.

Recovery from heroin and alcohol addiction both require the same types of treatment. Physical health issues need to be addressed throughout detox and after. Mental health is also a necessary component of both addiction recoveries. Addictive behaviors must be understood and altered, and strategies learned to maintain abstinence. In addition, support and education are necessary to rebuild a healthy, substance-free life.

Alcohol vs. Heroin Withdrawal

Withdrawal is a part of detoxing from any substance. Withdrawal symptoms are often what keep drug addicts using, because they don’t experience them until the drugs start to come out of the system. When an active alcohol or drug user begins to feel the symptoms of withdrawal, they usually get another dose to ward off the pain.


Although withdrawal symptoms from both alcohol and heroin detox can be painful, they don’t last very long. The average time for detox ranges from a couple days to a couple weeks. Withdrawal from heroin might be more severe and take a little longer than alcohol, but there are medicines you can take to ease heroin withdrawal symptoms.

The variations in withdrawal experiences have more to do with the severity of the addiction than the substance of choice. The longer your system is exposed to drugs, the more it changes and adapts to this new chemistry. These changes can take time to reverse, and that is what affects the intensity of withdrawal.

Alcohol vs. Heroin Physical Dependence

It is possible to develop a physical dependence on alcohol and heroin. Scientists have not yet figured out why some people become addicted to substances while others do not. Exposure is one of the key factors, of course. You cannot become addicted to heroin if you never use it, and more people are exposed to alcohol than heroin.

There are people who become physically addicted to heroin after just one use, and the same is true for alcohol. The difference does not seem to be in the substance but in the individual. There are strong indications it is genetic or at least has a genetic component because children of alcoholics are more vulnerable to addiction than others.

Alcohol vs. Heroin Deaths

The mortality rate of alcoholics versus that of heroin addicts is difficult to compare. Statistics for heroin deaths are directly related to overdose. When it comes to alcohol-related deaths, the statistics include driving deaths that involve alcohol impairment and other accidents where the death was not from alcohol overdose but the alcohol caused the accident. The annual average of alcohol related deaths in this country is 88,000. Comparing that to the 10,000 annual heroin overdoses makes alcohol more deadly than heroin.

Alcohol vs. Heroin: No Contest

It is clear both alcohol and heroin could have disastrous effects on your life. They are both toxins that, in high doses, can cause immediate death. The long-term health effects of continued use are serious for both drugs, including damage to vital organs and chronic illness. It is possible, and extremely likely with continued exposure, to develop a physical addiction to both alcohol and heroin.


Addiction is an all-encompassing disease that eventually takes over your life, erodes your health, and damages your career and relationships. The only guarantee you have of not developing an addiction is to avoid substances like alcohol and heroin, which are equally dangerous.

If you or someone you love is already suffering from addiction, it is important to get help right away to minimize the damage. Contact 12 Keys to learn about our individualized recovery programs that treat alcohol, heroin and other substance abuse problems. We offer an array of treatment modalities to fit different needs, and we treat addiction and related mental illnesses, including dual diagnosis.

At 12 Keys, we take a holistic approach to healing, addressing all the aspects of your broken life. In addition to behavioral therapies, we offer education, nutrition, exercise, and group and family counseling, healing the mind and body together. We understand the importance of helping our clients rebuild their families, relationships and careers into one healthy, happy life.

By contacting 12 Keys today, you can get answers to all of your addiction recovery questions. We understand entering a recovery program is a big step, and we’re here to support and guide you. Our compassionate staff is experienced at handling situations such as yours. Call us today and let us know you are ready to make some changes. Let 12 Keys guide you on your journey to recovery.

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