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Teen Heroin Abuse

Heroin abuse quickly turns to addiction, and lost relationships, financial peril and overdose can follow. Save your family from heroin addiction and get your teen treatment now.

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14 min read

Why Is Heroin Dangerous?

Heroin has been a growing presence in public schools and among suburban teens. What used to be an expensive, hard-to-find drug designed for being injected is now being packaged as a powder-filled capsule as well. Teens can find these for as cheap as $10, ready to be broken open and snorted. This has made teen heroin abuse far too easy and far too common.

The drug is more dangerous than ever. Studies show that 3% of high school students have used it, and the numbers are steadily rising. In fact, heroin users typically start out with an addiction to painkillers like OxyContin, then graduate to heroin because it’s — alarmingly — cheaper and easier to find.

man holding needle and spoon with heroin

Many parents may not even consider heroin when discussing substance use with their teens; it may seem too extreme or farfetched. Times have changed, however. In 2009, 21,000 teens sought treatment for heroin addiction, compared to 4,400 in 1999. Over 586,000 Americans met the criteria for heroin addiction in 2014, and overall heroin use in the U.S. has risen by more than 60% since 2002.

As if the drug itself isn’t dangerous enough, the recent trend of lacing it with fentanyl — an anesthetic sometimes lethal even in low doses — has caused a wave of overdoses. Illicit fentanyl can be 30–50 times more powerful than heroin itself. To fight these trends, a 2015 plan by the White House called for $5 million to be directed towards combating heroin use and trafficking.

Street Names for Heroin

Heroin goes by a number of slang terms; the vernacular can differ depending on your region, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the nicknames that are popular in your area.

Street names for heroin include, but are not limited to:

  • Smack
  • Dope
  • Horse
  • Black Tar
  • Skag
  • H
  • Big H
  • Junk
  • Brown Sugar
  • China White

Where Would My Teen Get Heroin?

Your teen may be able to track down the drug with relative ease through word-of-mouth and advances in technology. The internet, where teens spend more and more of their time, is perhaps the scariest source of drugs like heroin. A quick search on Google or links provided in online forums can point your teen to online marketplaces where heroin can be bought and shipped discreetly to your home.

It’s becoming difficult for law enforcement to monitor these exchanges online. There are now anonymous networks — like Tor — that conceal online communications and allow someone buying or selling drugs to operate in secrecy. It’s important for parents to try and keep up as much as they can. Stay informed on your teen’s online activity, keeping in mind social media influence on youth and culture.

Why Would My Teen Use Heroin?

Even in the experimental teenage years, heroin abuse is an outlier and something to avoid at all costs. Educating your kids on the drug’s many dangers and being a positive role model as they grow into young adults can help steer them away. A lack of parental involvement may be a big reason that teens wind up giving the deadly drug a try. One study showed that the frequency of teens using drugs like heroin dropped by 10–14% for each degree (on a 5-point scale) they perceived their parents were monitoring their activities.

“If you are monitoring where they go and what they’re doing, then you can decrease the risk that your kids will be using these substances.”

John HoffmannResearcher

In any case, your teen may make the choice to use heroin for a number of reasons.

Alternative to Prescription Painkillers

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, similar to many of the more common prescription medications that are available today. A recent study from the American Society of Addiction Medication found that 80% of new heroin users came to the drug by way of prescription painkiller abuse. For people misusing prescription painkillers, it’s the familiar numbing effect of heroin that draws them in.

Heroin is also a much cheaper alternative to painkillers. A 2014 survey of recovering opioid addicts found that 94% began using heroin because the prescription opioid alternatives were both more expensive and more difficult to obtain.

Pleasure

Other than its painkilling properties — which, in the short term, are quite notable — heroin creates a euphoric “rush” that is said to be highly pleasurable. There’s a reason it still attracts new users despite its glaring risks: the intense pleasure. Sensation-seeking teens might consider the high from heroin a peak of sorts, and something they can’t get from lesser drugs.

Peer Pressure

According to one survey, 55% of teens cite pressure from friends as why they started using drugs in the first place. Over 80% of heroin users inject the drug with a partner. Peer pressure may be more subtle than you imagine; this can make it even more of a threat. It can be so much as a casual suggestion at a party, catching your teen at a vulnerable moment.

teen handing heroin needle to another teen

Stress

For many users, drugs are seen as an escape — from work, school, family drama or troubled relationships. Bogged down by severe stress, your teen may decide to experiment with heroin. Teens with especially stressful lives can have their judgment clouded, and in traumatic times (e.g. parent separation/divorce, failing grades, death in the family, etc.), they can act on impulse towards things like heroin use.

Influence from Media

Heroin is quite infamous for its role in celebrity culture, a talking point for rock musicians since the 1960s. The drug has contributed to the death of celebrities across every medium, including Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. But for all the dangers of heroin abuse, the drug has been for its dark and exhilarating effects in movies such as Pulp Fiction and Requiem for a Dream.

Mental Health Issues

Teens with a serious substance issue are twice as likely to be living with one or more co-occurring mental disorders; these simultaneous issues can complicate and worse the effects of the other. Struggling with the side effects of a mental health problem is one major factor in teen heroin abuse becoming a coping mechanism. Co-occurring disorders can also be a result of prolonged substance abuse.

Major depression, one of the most common mental health disorders in teens, is commonly linked to heroin abuse or dependency — when the body can’t fully function without a fix of the drug. Anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorders are other mental disorders that can lead to (or be partially caused by) heroin abuse.

What Are the Effects of Heroin Use?

Heroin addicts can suffer for a lifetime. Maintaining a decent job or relationship become near impossibilities, along with staying out of trouble with the law. In addition to all of this, an addict’s physical and mental health can steadily deteriorate.

Heroin

How the Body Is Affected

Health-related side effects of heroin addiction include:

  • Bad teeth
  • Inflamed gums
  • Muscle weakness and partial paralysis
  • Weakened immune system
  • Pustules on the face
  • Reduced sexual capacity
  • Coma

If the drug is laced with other ingredients, which is often the case, it can cause severe clogging of blood vessels upon injection. This can lead to permanent damage to vital organs, including the lungs, liver and kidneys.

How the Brain Is Affected

Morphine, the primary chemical in heroin, has a similar chemical structure to endorphins. These chemicals, called the natural opiates of the body, are produced in the brain naturally when the body experiences pain or stress. When heroin enters the system, it acts as an imposter endorphin, producing a powerful desire to receive more of it.

Abusing heroin can alter the brain’s chemistry in other ways from the very first use. Studies show that the drug can deteriorate white matter, a component of the brain and spinal cord that greatly affects how we learn and function.

Damage to the brain's white matter can impact:

  • Decision-making abilities
  • Ability to regular behavior
  • Response to stressful situations

Other common psychological side effects of heroin abuse include loss of memory and intellectual performance, depression and introversion. Each day your child uses the drug, they jeopardize their body and mind in a huge way.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid, like several big name prescription narcotics, and is derived from morphine. Pure heroin is a fine white powder, but it takes on a brown or black color and a sticky texture when diluted and sold on the street — often mixed with sugar, caffeine or other ingredients. It sometimes comes out more like a tar than a powder, which explains the nickname “black tar heroin.” The drug hits the brain in a matter of seconds and has a powerful painkilling effect that’s followed by a devastating withdrawal.

needles and heroin on table

The U.S. government classifies heroin as a Schedule I drug — the most dangerous and addictive class of drugs. This puts it on par with drugs like LSD and ecstasy, which are also popular drugs abused by teens.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are drugs that block or reduce pain signals to the brain and impact the brain’s response to both painful and emotional stimulus. By definition, opioids are in some way synthesized from the opium poppy plant — which, in its purest form, produces the drug opium. Heroin is produced from morphine, one of the major chemical components of the plant. Morphine itself is an opioid used in hospitals to treat pain, but it’s also sold and sought after on the streets as a recreational drug.

Several of the major prescription painkillers are classified as opioids. These include codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl. Each one is semi-synthetic, made from artificial ingredients along with some extracted element from the poppy plant. Opioid addiction is powerful, and the main reason for the drug’s misuse is its efficiency in numbing pain.

How Is Heroin Used?

Of all heroin paraphernalia, needles are the tried-and-true method for the drug’s consumption. The powder is heated down into a liquid, often by placing a small amount in a spoon and holding a flame to it. The subsequent liquid is loaded into a syringe and shot into the forearm.

Aside from injection, heroin can also be smoked or snorted. Abusing the drug with needles may open your teen up to added risks — such as abscesses or the exchange of diseases — but each method is equally as dangerous as the next. Overdoses and death are an inherent risk of heroin, no matter how you take it.

Is Heroin Addictive?

Only a small number of illicit drugs are considered as addictive as heroin. It’s estimated that 23% of people who try heroin become addicted, which adds up to millions around the world. The vast majority of heroin users — 96% of them — abuse at least one other drug and 61% use at least 3 other drugs.

Heroin use or dependency is 40 times more likely in people who abuse or are hooked on prescription painkillers — 75% of new heroin users, in fact, began with a prescription pill problem.

Developing a heroin problem is also 15 times more likely in cocaine users, 3 times more likely with marijuana use, and twice as likely with teens who abuse of alcohol.

woman holding heroin syringe by window

What Are The Signs Of Heroin Abuse?

Considering how intensely addictive heroin is and the myriad of serious dangers involved, catching a problem in its early stages is crucial. Here’s what to look for.

The initial signs of heroin use are often extremely noticeable and difficult to hide. These signs include:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Sedation and drowsiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Clouded mental function
  • Cold body temperature

The “nod” comes after the “rush,” sometimes leaving users in a tranquilized, unresponsive condition. If you find your teen in a heroin-induced state, call for help immediately. Blue lips or fingernails and cold skin are visible symptoms of heroin addiction. You also may find small marks on their inner arm (called “track marks”) if they’ve been injecting with a needle.

Other Signs of Heroin Addiction or Abuse

You can usually tell something’s wrong by observing some telltale signs of addiction in your teen. Heroin’s emotional and mental side effects will likely be in plain view.

Look for these notable signs of heroin abuse to determine if your teen might have a problem:

  • Becoming isolated or distant
  • Hanging out with different friends or no friends at all
  • Extreme shifts in appearance and overall health
  • Depression, irritability, or other changes in attitude
  • Trouble at school or with the law
  • Missed obligations and falling grades
  • Financial desperation

You know your teen better than anyone, so signs like these should be impossible to ignore. If your son or daughter exhibits any worrisome changes, don’t let them go by unaddressed.

What Does Heroin Withdrawal Look Like?

The withdrawal from heroin is known to be more intense than the majority of other substances. It can be so dreadful that users will intensely crave another fix — if only to stop the pains of withdrawal. Serious withdrawal symptoms can kick in after the first use, typically most intense between 24–48 hours after the last dose, but can hang around for days or even weeks.

Look for these signs to indicate your teen is in the middle of heroin withdrawal:

  • Cold flashes (or “the chills”)
  • Vomiting
  • Intense muscle and bone pain
  • Kicking movements
  • Insomnia
  • Erratic behavior

What Happens in an Overdose?

As the brain of a heroin addict screams out for more, it can lead to tragic results. The user can end up injecting more of the drug than the body can handle, causing functions like breathing and heart rate to panic and shut down. This is called an overdose.

In 2014, 10,500 people died from a heroin overdose, and heroin-related deaths in the U.S. have seen year-over-year increases over the last several years. In some one-year windows, the increases can be stark. For example, from 2012–2013, heroin-related deaths in the U.S. jumped 39%. Overdose death rates, drug sales and addiction treatment admissions related to heroin have increased over the last two decades. The numbers continue to trend upward.

“Historically the age for most heroin deaths has been in the 40–to–45 range. But now the average age is between 18 and 25.”

Tim FitchFormer St. Louis Police Chief

When the drug is combined with alcohol or other drugs, or a user drastically increases their dosage in a particular session, the odds of an overdose are greatly increased. Not every overdose is fatal — with immediate medical attention, someone overdosing on heroin might be saved. The injectable medication naloxone, on-hand in most emergency vehicles, can jumpstart the brain’s functions if applied quickly enough.

2016 Buprenorphine Advisory

In early 2016, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) published an advisory on buprenorphine, a common medication used in treating heroin addiction as well as other opioid problems. This update details the buprenorphine products approved by the FDA, as well as some potential side effects of buprenorphine — particularly how it interacts with other drugs and preexisting conditions.

Buprenorphine can be extremely beneficial in your teen’s recovery from heroin dependency. With that being said, it’s essential that you research this medication before deciding if it’s right for your teen.

woman holding heroin kills sign

Does Your Teen Need Heroin Addiction Treatment?

Teen heroin rehab is something that can help your child in this time of need. Most medical professionals recommend inpatient treatment for harder drugs like heroin so that they can have around-the-clock care during the recovery process. With the assistance of addiction counselors, your teen can overcome their battle with heroin abuse.

Determining where to send your teen for heroin addiction treatment doesn’t have to be difficult. Your child’s physician may be the best place to start as they know your family and may be able to make a recommendation. TeenRehabCenter.org can also be a help to you. Our recovery advisors are always available to talk if you have questions about heroin addiction, choosing the best drug rehab facility for your family or rehab payment options.

Addiction and treatment can be hard for anyone to handle, let alone a child. Make sure to take the time to talk to your teen about what they can expect during rehab before they begin their journey to recovery.

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