Heroin is an illegal opioid that is considered a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has strong addiction potential and severe detrimental side effects. Heroin was developed in 1874 in Germany and soon made its way to the United States and the rest of the world. North America consumes more than 40% of the world’s heroin, which has resulted in a severe epidemic of heroin-related diseases and deaths. This drug is either smoked or injected intravenously or subcutaneously (through the skin) and therefore like any other injectable drug, heroin has an increased rate of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Heroin addiction is treatable, and heroin treatment options consist of psychotherapy approaches combined with medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Heroin treatment options

Medication-assisted treatment incorporates medications and therapy to help the brain and body recover from its dependence on heroin. The individual is placed under direct medical supervision and is monitored from his/her safety and comfort.

Medications approved to treat heroin abuse include opioid receptor blockers such as naltrexone, opioid receptor activators such as methadone and partial opioid agonists, which both block and activate the opioid receptors such as buprenorphine.

  • Naltrexone: Blocks the euphoric and sedative effects of heroin by blocking opioid receptors. It is given to clients as a means to prevent heroin cravings and can prevent the feeling of getting high if a client uses heroin while on this medication. It is considered a long-term medication and therefore, is given to the client only if he/she has abstained from heroin for 7-10 days. It comes in a pill or injectable form, and although it sounds similar to naloxone, which is used to prevent heroin overdose, it is considered a very different medication. Naltrexone can also be used to treat alcohol dependence.
  • Methadone: Methadone is regarded as a low strength long-acting opioid and can be given to help prevent heroin withdrawal side effects however its use is controversial because it can lead to further addiction since it is an opioid. It is possible for users who have been treated for heroin abuse with methadone, to become addicted to methadone, even though they have quit heroin and therefore using methadone to prevent withdrawal side effects can be dangerous in itself. In a methadone-based treatment center, healthcare professionals with administering small doses of methadone to heroin-addicted clients with the idea that the withdrawal side effects will be minimized over time and simultaneously the dose of methadone will decrease.
  • Suboxone: Contains both naloxone and buprenorphine and since 2013, has sold more units than Viagra and Adderall, making it an incredibly popular prescription. Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist meaning that it somewhat increases the actions of opioids (heroin) and therefore can minimize the withdrawal side effects associated with heroin. Naloxone is an opioid blocker, so if the user is still taking heroin, they will experience withdrawals. Since naloxone carries too many risks for it to be administered by itself, it is combined with buprenorphine to give clients a more natural process of weaning away from stronger narcotics. The result of the combination is Suboxone. Opioids such as Suboxone and methadone can reduce the debilitating effects of heroin withdrawal and the intense cravings for more opioids. Although there is a potential to become addicted to Suboxone, the risk is far less than the benefits of safely detoxing from heroin.