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Risk Factors Of Heroin Abuse

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 21, 2019

Risk factors for heroin abuse include environmental and genetic factors, as well as misuse of prescription opioids. The best treatment programs for heroin abuse should work to treat both the physical and mental reliance on heroin.

Risk factors are those things within a person’s life that influence the likelihood they will abuse drugs and develop addiction. One of the greatest risk factors of heroin abuse is abuse of prescription opioids. Research shows four out of five people new to heroin abuse first misused their prescription opioid.

These narcotic medications produce pain-altering effects which can lead to misuse and eventually addiction. Because the drugs are prescribed, a person may run out of their prescription after becoming addicted, then seek ways to find the drug.

If a person can’t obtain another opioid prescription and has developed an addiction to or physical dependence on the drug, they may seek alternative ways to get the same effects of the drug. Heroin is often sought by those who have abused prescription opioids, as it is a cheaper alternative and may be easier to obtain illegally.

Other risk factors of heroin abuse include:

  • genetic or biological factors
  • personal brain characteristics
  • age of first drug use
  • outside influences
  • co-occurring disorders

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Genetic And Biological Factors

A person’s genetic makeup, or genes, may contribute to heroin abuse. Unfortunately, someone’s family may have a history of heroin abuse because some biological factor makes them predisposed to drug abuse. In some cases, ethnicity or gender may affect whether someone uses heroin.

For instance, women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed an opioid medication to treat that pain, and eventually misuse the medication. Because opioid prescription abuse often leads to heroin abuse, women may have a high risk of heroin abuse. In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that heroin overdose deaths among women tripled from 2010 to 2013.

Scientists believe a person’s genetic makeup may be responsible for up to half the risk of developing addiction.

Personal Brain Characteristics

Research from recent years points to increased risk factors for drug abuse in individuals with certain brain characteristics. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the way a brain develops can influence whether a person abuses drugs or alcohol.

Certain negative factors will be harmful to the development of the brain, in the way it learns to respond to situations, make connections, and more. These can include trauma, harmful environment, lack of nutrition, lack of sleep, or exposure to bullying. People who were exposed to negative risk factors early in life, during brain development years, may be at higher risk of abusing drugs like heroin.

Age Of First Drug Use

When a child abuses drugs at a young age, they are more likely to have a prolonged drug abuse problem. Children’s brains are still developing, and abusing drugs during this process interrupts the natural growth. Heroin disrupts the brain communication pathways, so this would be a detrimental change for a child.

There are many risk factors early in a child’s life which can put them at heightened risk of drug abuse later in life. Some of these include aggressive behavior, inability to control actions or emotions, and having an extreme temper.

Some early family interactions may also lead a child to abuse drugs early on. These can include an unstable home environment, lack of parental influence, unstable parenting, or having a parent who abuses drugs.

Outside Influences

Outside, or environmental, influences are one of the greatest risk factors of heroin abuse. If a person is surrounded by a drug-abusing environment, they are much more likely to begin abusing heroin. This is especially true for children who grow up with parents or other caregivers who abuse drugs, as this sends the message that heroin abuse is a part of daily life.

People who have been to treatment, such as an inpatient program, for heroin addiction and return home to their environment of abuse may also struggle to remain sober. Triggers in their environment can contribute to further heroin abuse, such as family members or friends who use heroin, social pressure, or personal stressors.

Co-Occurring Disorder

People with mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression, may be at an increased risk of turning to drugs like heroin in an attempt to self-medicate their symptoms. Heroin is a depressant drug which produces relaxing effects and feelings of calm and euphoria (surge of happiness).

With time, this abuse can lead to addiction. Heroin abuse can worsen the symptoms of the mental health disorder, rather than alleviating them. When abuse turns to addiction, and a person experiences both the mental health disorder and addiction, it is called a co-occurring disorder.

How Heroin Abuse Risk Factors Affect Addiction

The more risk factors a person has, the more likely they are to fall into heroin abuse. If a person is both a woman and abusing prescription opioids, in other words, she is very likely to begin abusing heroin. If a child experienced an unstable home environment and his parent also abused heroin, he is likely to begin using heroin at some point.

Heroin abuse contributes to the development of addiction. Abusing heroin produces pleasurable, often desirable, effects. People quickly get used to these effects and want to seek them again and again. But heroin is a highly addictive drug and leads to addiction quickly.

People who have several risk factors for heroin abuse may be at increased risk for heroin addiction, but this does not have to be the case. There are ways to prevent heroin abuse and addiction, and for those who already struggle with these issues, there are many effective treatment options.

Heroin Abuse Prevention

Prevention for heroin abuse can begin as early as childhood and continue throughout a person’s life. Prevention includes protective factors and paying attention to a person’s stressors, as well as always being careful to avoid prescription misuse.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are the opposite of risk factors, or the actions one can take in response to risk factors. If a child is aggressive early on, the parent can seek counseling, behavioral therapy, medication, or a number of other intervention treatments.

If a teen is considering heroin abuse because of constant exposure to parental drug abuse, there are programs and resources in place which can help prevent this abuse and help the teen work through issues which make them feel the need to use drugs.

Protective factors for heroin abuse for adults come mainly in the form of paying attention to daily stressors and avoiding opioid prescription misuse.

Paying Attention To Stressors

All adults will undergo stressors from time to time. It is the way adults handle such stress which will determine their risk for drug abuse. If a person turns to substances in response to stress, they are more likely to abuse heroin at some point, too.

For example, many people like to have a drink or two to deal with daily troubles. Alcohol is a depressant, like heroin. With time, it may not be difficult to slip into heroin use to produce even stronger depressant effects and deliver a more potent high than alcohol.

People can avoid such a situation by learning healthy ways to cope with emotions, feelings, and stress. Some of these ways can include the same treatments used in heroin addiction treatment, such as counseling, individual therapy, and behavioral therapy. Each of these treatments helps a person to identify destructive thoughts and/or behaviors and implement new, healthy ones.

Avoiding Opioid Prescription Misuse

Opioid prescription misuse is one of the leading risk factors for heroin abuse, so it’s important to avoid any misuse of medications. The following are suggested ways to avoid misuse of opioid medications:

  • Only take the recommended dose and frequency of the medication.
  • Do not take the medication any way other than prescribed—do not crush it and snort it for faster effects, etc.
  • Always consult a doctor if a dose is missed, or to increase frequency or amount of dosage.
  • Only take the prescription for as long as pain is present.
  • Avoid prolonged use of opioid medications.

Treatment Options For Heroin Abuse

Heroin abuse can escalate quickly into addiction, which can also lead to physical dependence. If a person is dependent on heroin, they will likely experience painful withdrawal symptoms. In this case, it’s best to start treatment with a medically supervised detox program, to rid the body of the drug.

Once a person has been treated physically for heroin abuse, they can move on to treatment for the psychological reliance (addiction). Most inpatient rehab programs are designed to meet the needs of each participant. Programs will be custom-made and can include a number of treatments based on individual need.

Some proven effective treatments for heroin abuse include behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), medications used through medication-assisted therapy, such as Suboxone (buprenorphine), and counseling.

Heroin addiction can become a severe disease which will require long-term management, and the first step is a proper treatment program. While there are many types of treatment for heroin abuse, inpatient is considered the most effective and gives participants the greatest chance at lasting recovery changes.

Learn more about risk factors of heroin abuse and treatment options by contacting a treatment specialist today.

American Society of Addiction Medicine - Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts & Figures

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Drug Misuse and Addiction

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Genetic and Epigenetics of Addiction

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are risk factors and protective factors?

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