Why Is Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin is highly addictive because it causes changes in the brain that trick the parts that are responsible for motivation and pleasure into thinking heroin is desirable.
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Most addictive drugs change the way the brain’s motivation and reward systems work. The brain is designed to remember experiences that cause pleasure. It’s also designed to motivate us to repeat these experiences in the future. Addictive substances trick the brain, making it motivate us to seek drugs.

Heroin usually costs between $5 and $10, but one OxyContin tablet can cost about $80 on the street.

Heroin is a unique drug. It doesn’t cause a euphoric rush as intense as the rush caused by cocaine or crystal meth. It doesn’t last as long as many prescription drugs. But heroin is often described as one of the most addictive drugs.

Heroin is so addictive because of the way that it affects the brain. The way that people use heroin makes brain adaptations occur more quickly. The drug’s low cost and easy availability does little to deter people from seeking it, and heroin’s devastating withdrawal symptoms often prevent people from quitting.

Heroin Changes Brain Chemistry

When a person uses heroin, the drug enters the blood stream and goes straight to the brain. Heroin affects the parts of the brain in charge of pleasure, depression, anxiety and sedation. That’s why people who use heroin feel happy and relaxed. They also stop feeling depressed or anxious.

The memory and motivation systems in the brain remember that heroin caused happiness, and they associate heroin with positive experiences. Memories of the positive experiences grow stronger each time a person uses heroin, and the brain becomes increasingly motivated to use the drug.

With prolonged use, heroin starts to disrupt parts of the brain in charge of self-control and judgment. Heroin addiction occurs because the brain is tricked into thinking the drug causes positive experiences. The brain issues cravings for the drug, and the parts of the brain in charge of self-control aren’t strong enough to overcome the cravings.

Injecting, Snorting & Smoking Increase Addiction Risk

Heroin is an opioid, and most opioids affect the brain in the same way. So why do many people say heroin is more addictive? Most people smoke, snort or shoot heroin. These methods of administration have more immediate effects on the brain than swallowing a drug, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah.

Many prescription drugs have formulas that make pills difficult to crush and snort or to melt and inject. When a person swallows a pill, the medication goes through the stomach and liver, where it’s slowly absorbed into the bloodstream. The brain gradually feels the drug over time.

But when a person smokes, injects or snorts a drug, it can reach the brain in seconds. The brain is more likely to become addicted to a drug when the full dose of the drug enters the brain all at once. Heroin is rarely swallowed in a pill, so it’s more likely to cause addiction because it’s almost always used in high-risk ways.

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Easy Access to Heroin Enables Use

Prescription opioids are more expensive and harder to access than heroin. Many people who become addicted to prescription opioids switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to find on the street, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“About 80 percent of people who are addicted to heroin started by taking prescription opioid pills.”

Dr. Stephen Mudra, Chief, Primary Pain Management, North Florida/South Georgia Veteran Health System

For example, heroin usually costs between $5 and $10, but one OxyContin tablet can cost about $80 on the street.

Heroin availability has drastically increased in the past decade, according to the 2017 Drug Enforcement Administration National Drug Threat Assessment. The drug’s availability also keeps the cost down.

Withdrawal Inhibits Recovery from Heroin Addiction

Individuals who are dependent on heroin commonly take the drug to stave off uncomfortable heroin withdrawal symptoms. Rather than using the drug to get high, they take it to avoid feeling dope sick.

Heroin withdrawal is rarely deadly, but it’s often described as the most miserable type of drug withdrawal. It lasts longer than withdrawal from cocaine and meth. It’s shorter than alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal, but the physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal are often described as worse.

Few people are capable of getting through heroin withdrawal without treatment. If they do, they often lack the tools and resources necessary for avoiding relapse.

How Addictive Is Heroin?

It’s difficult to measure or compare types of drug addiction. In a 2007 study published in the Lancet, a survey of doctors and psychiatrists concluded that heroin was the most addictive drug because of its effects on pleasure, psychological dependence and physical dependence. It also had the highest risk of physical harm and social harm.

Physical dependence refers to changes in the brain that cause increased tolerance to the drug and trigger withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t present.

Psychological dependence refers to changes in motivation, self-control and judgment that make a person crave heroin. People who are addicted to heroin will do almost anything to obtain the drug because their brains aren’t properly weighing the consequences of their actions.

How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Heroin?

Most people don’t become addicted to heroin after one use. But using the drug once may lead to repeated use that escalates to addiction. Depending on how often you use heroin, how you use the drug and the purity of the drug, you can get addicted to heroin in less than a week.

Those who use heroin usually do not experience physical or psychological cravings after their first use. But the drug’s desirable effects often motivate people to try it again. This can start a dangerous cycle of compulsive use.

As heroin use escalates, the brain begins to build a tolerance to the drug, requiring higher doses to feel the same effects. Over time, people become physically dependent on the drug and need it to function normally. Many individuals don’t realize they have a problem until they’ve developed a full-blown heroin addiction. The longer they wait to enter heroin treatment, the more addicted they become.

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