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Heroin has been a serious public health problem for over a century, making heroin addiction treatment a vital public health necessity. In recent years heroin’s popularity amongst drug users has increased to epidemic proportions in the U.S. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opiate, since it is produced from a naturally occurring opiate from the poppy plant. Starting in the 1870s, heroin was first synthesized from morphine and then produced on a large scale by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company. It was originally marketed as a substitute for morphine for people suffering from a morphine addiction. The most common use for heroin today is for illegal recreational purposes. However, it is also approved in certain countries for pain relief and for the long-term maintenance of opiate addiction.

The Early History of Heroin Addiction

In the 1800s, heroin use was associated with affluence. Heroin was mostly available as a cough syrup, and for those with financial means, their medicine cabinets were stocked with the drug. A high percentage of users at this time were affluent women. Heroin was touted as a miracle drug and was used for all sorts of ailments. The name heroin came into use when Bayer began commercially manufacturing the generic opiate, diacetylmorphine, in 1895. It used the trade name Heroin, for the drug. Bayer sold the drug as a “non-addictive” alternative to morphine for cough and pain control. However, it was far from non-addictive, and within a very brief period, many users found themselves “hooked” on the drug while society searched for an effective means of heroin addiction treatment.

Street Names for Heroin

  • Dope
  • Smack
  • J
  • Junk
  • Horse
  • Brown

Today’s Need for Heroin Addiction Treatment

After the drug became illegal in the U.S. without a prescription, its use declined. But, a resurgence of use occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1960s, heroin use was popularized by the music and film industry and became somewhat fashionable. By the 1990s, prescription opiates were widely available and replaced heroin as a drug of choice. But, in the 2000s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other government agencies put in place tighter controls and penalties for the prescription and distribution of prescription pain pills. After this regulatory and legal crackdown, the U.S. has seen a recent surge in the use of heroin, once again, as former prescription opiate users switch to heroin as a cheaper and more accessible high to feed their addiction. This dramatic shift in opiate addicts’ drug of choice has highlighted the need for greater availability of heroin addiction treatment across the United States.

illustrated bar chart showing the of heroin overdose deaths in the U.S.

Ways to Maintain Heroin Addiction

For those who have a heroin addiction, it can be used intravenously, by smoking, subcutaneously (injected under the skin, a.k.a. skin popping), by suppository (anal or vaginal), by insufflation (snorting), or orally. When taken by mouth, heroin is converted to morphine. The oral use of heroin by heroin addicts does not produce the typical “rush” that one gets when using the drug by other routes. The faster the route of administration and the higher the dose used, the more likely one will quickly become addicted to heroin, both physically and psychologically. When addicts go without early heroin addiction treatment they often switch to injecting the drug over time to get the most “high” out of their heroin usage. After long-term heroin abuse via injections, the veins for long-term heroin addicts become inaccessible, due to the destruction of the venous system. Heroin users also get frequent abscesses, skin problems, and can develop severe lung and heart problems, both due to infections and to other substances that are added to the heroin powder.

Tolerance and the Risk of Overdose

Like addiction to Oxys, hydrocodone, Percocet, and Vicodin, a heroin addict will develop tolerance and will need more and more of the drug to produce the wanted high. Because of the high doses used and the uncertainty of the potency, the use of street heroin is particularly dangerous. Another caveat, is that once one has undergone heroin detox, either due to the unavailability of the drug or from entering heroin addiction treatment, their tolerance will decrease. Should a relapse occur, individuals with a heroin addiction are at extreme risk of overdose, because they may attempt to use the same amount as they used before, when their tolerance was higher. Since they no longer have tolerance, a rapid demise is possible.

Fentanyl “Spiking” Makes Heroin Even More Dangerous

Particularly gruesome is the fact that the heroin powder found on the street is frequently mixed with carfentanil or fentanyl. Both drugs are very potent opiates and are much stronger and cheaper than heroin. Since the heroin user does not know the potency of the mixture, heroin deaths from opiate overdose have greatly increased over the past few years. This makes early heroin addiction treatment an even more essential (and potentially life-saving) goal for any heroin addict.

Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Typical symptoms of heroin addiction are frequent nodding off, needle marks on the skin, infections (including HIV and Hepatitis C), job loss, relationship difficulties, and inability to manage finances. It is also likely that a heroin addict will become malnourished and may become homeless. Some turn to illegal activities, such as theft, robbery, prostitution, or illicit drug dealing to supply the funds for their habits. Because of this connection to criminal behavior, U.S. prisons are highly populated with heroin addicts who often still manage to get access to the drug while behind bars, while access to heroin addiction treatment is often rare or non-existent in these settings.

Society’s Responses to Heroin Addiction


Prevention efforts concentrating on drug education to help prevent a future generation of heroin addicts are an important tool in the long-term fight against heroin addiction. In addition, limiting the prescription rates and dosage of prescription opioids can go a long way toward lowering the numbers of individuals who eventually get hooked on heroin.


State and local governments spend a large amount of resources on “fighting the drug war” through law enforcement sweeps and border security. Although these efforts have some success in limited the supply of heroin, many researchers believe that this money would produce better results if spent on the demand part of the equation. Also, many individuals incarcerated for heroin usage still find ways to acquire the drug in prison.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin addiction treatment is the best way to respond once an individual has developed an addiction. However, not all approaches are equally effective, and individuals need to make sure that the facility they enter for treatment is staffed with qualified professionals who are following the latest evidence-based practices. Checking for certifications and credentials prior to entering heroin addiction treatment is a critical first step in choosing a drug treatment facility.

Opiate Replacement Therapy

Opiate replacement therapy using methadone or Suboxone can minimize some of the negative consequences of heroin addiction to the addict and society as a whole, but unfortunately do not strike at the heart of the problem: addiction. Critics argue that these approaches simply substitute one addiction for another.

Needle Exchanges

Needle exchanges have been shown to be effective at lowering the HIV and Hepatitis infection rates among intravenous heroin users, saving them from potential death sentences or a lifetime of chronic illness. However, they do not address the core problem of heroin addiction itself.

“Safe” Injection Sites

Safe injection sites, monitored by medical professionals, can help addicts to avoid infections and the oftentimes dangerous areas and environments where addicts typically inject their drugs. Unfortunately, they do nothing to end an addict’s addiction.

Availability of Naltrexone

The widespread availability of Naltrexone to revive addicts who have overdose has saved countless lives, particularly in the era of Fentanyl-laced heroin. By keeping addicts alive, this drug increases the chances that they will live long enough to eventually receive treatment. But, by itself, Naltrexone does nothing to treat the underlying disease of addiction.

Prevention and Harm Reduction vs. Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin addiction treatment is complex and multifaceted. In addition to a focus on the treatment of addicts, other methods are often employed to lessen the harm that addicts cause themselves and others. Prevention by education and law enforcement is on the front lines of battling the addiction. Harm reduction by opiate replacement therapy, replacing heroin for methadone or Suboxone, has also been effective, as have needle exchange programs and making naltrexone available for opiate users and their companions. Some countries have established safe injection sites where a user can go to safely inject the drug, under supervision and with clean equipment. However, all of these methods don’t strike at the source of the problem: heroin addiction treament for those who are caught in the grip of this deadly disease.

Heroin Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms

  • restlessness
  • severe muscle and bone pain
  • sleep problems
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”)
  • uncontrollable leg movements (“kicking the habit”)
  • severe heroin cravings

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Heroin Addiction

As the field of drug treatment has grown, new treatment approaches have been tried and tested through clinical research. One of the most promising areas in recent years has been the success of medication-assisted treatment. While not a replacement for the “tried and true” methods developed in drug rehabs over the years, medication-assisted treatment has been shown to be a very effective adjunct to these well-established and proven techniques. Medication-assisted treatment (also referred to as MAT) uses medications prescribed by a physician, along with counseling and mental health care, to help those who are suffering from addiction to maintain sobriety after detoxification.

illustrated table comparing commonly prescribed drugs for medication-assisted treatment

These medications, especially during early recovery, can help to reduce cravings, stabilize emotional dysregulation, and restore normal bodily functions like proper sleeping and eating habits among heroin addicts undergoing treatment. The most common drugs used in MAT include Suboxone and Subutex which both combine the drugs buprenorphine and naltrexone to help heroin addicts lessen their cravings for heroin, manage withdrawal symptoms, and protect themselves from overdose in the case of a relapse into heroin use. However, it is critical that these medications not be seen as a replacement for proven heroin addiction treatment approaches such as inpatient treatment in a certified drug treatment facility. They work best as an adjunct to these approaches, another tool to help addicts on the road to recovery from addiction.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

The soundest medical treatment for heroin addiction is abstinence. By entering an inpatient or residential drug detox for professional heroin addiction treatment, one can completely rid themselves of opiates. This method, however, must be followed by drug rehab to be effective. Most likely, it will be recommended that the newly detoxed heroin addict transfer to an inpatient or residential drug rehab, rather than an outpatient drug rehab because the relapse rate for heroin addiction is high. Behavioral Wellness and Recovery can assist you or a loved one in providing appropriate heroin addiction treatment and can also answer any questions you have about heroin addiction.

Free Yourself from Heroin Addiction Now

If you or someone you love needs heroin addiction treatment, BWR is here to help. Call us day or night at 800-683-4457 to get started on the road to recovery and a happier, healthier life – free from the clutches of this life-destroying disease.


[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse,
[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse,
[3] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.

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