For years, researchers primarily examined drug addiction in men. This initial medical bias meant that women who abused drugs like heroin didn’t have access to rehab centers or other recovery programs. However, in the 1990s, some U.S. organizations began to include women as study participants in their research. Today, more programs exist to help women recover from substance abuse. Here we’ll explain how heroin abuse is different in women, why they may be more susceptible, and the available heroin recovery options.
What is Heroin?Heroin is a natural substance extracted from various poppy plants. It comes in a brown or white powder cut with sugars, powdered milk, starch, or quinine. Pure heroin, however, has a white color and a bitter taste, and it can be smoked or snorted. New users prefer this pure form of heroin as it eliminates the stigma that comes with injecting drugs into the body. Another form of heroin is black tar heroin, which is sticky. The crude method used to extract the heroin gives it a dark color. Black tar heroin is diluted, dissolved, and injected into the muscles, veins, or under the skin. It’s easy to misjudge the amount needed to get high whether it’s snorted, smoked, or slammed. Also, since there is no consistency between batches, a hit one day could give you a high, and the next could kill you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 82,200 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 2013, with the deaths quadrupling since 2002.
Heroin Use in WomenThe impact of heroin use is more profound in women because physiological differences enhance a drug’s concentration. The female body has less of the stomach enzyme responsible for breaking down the drugs, resulting in a higher drug concentration in the body. Additionally, women have more fatty tissue than men. This allows the drugs to get absorbed more easily into the bloodstream. It explains why a snort of heroin has twice the physical impact as a similar dose for men. The brain and other organs are exposed to higher heroin concentrations for prolonged periods and more likely to be permanently damaged.
Are Women More Susceptible to Using Heroin?Women are just as susceptible to substance abuse as men. Research shows they are more prone to relapse and craving, a critical phase of the addiction cycle. They are also more likely to experience fatal heroin overdoses due to the biological differences between them and men. However, women use drugs to respond to a range of psychological reasons. Factors like relationship dynamics, addiction stigma, childcare responsibilities, and other problems may increase women’s susceptibility to drug abuse.
Mental Illness and HeroinStudies show that women are 70% more likely to experience depression, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress due to sexual abuse or violence. They use drugs such as heroin to relieve these psychological problems. According to the National Institutes of Health, 55 to 59% of women in drug recovery programs have been sexually abused, increasing their susceptibility to heroin addiction threefold.
Heroin Use and PregnancyUsing heroin during pregnancy increases women’s likelihood of miscarriage, congenital disabilities, and premature death. Also, kids born addicted to the drug may suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a collection of withdrawal symptoms that impact a child’s behavior and development. Kids with NAS have a greater risk of developing seizures, feeding difficulties, respiratory problems, low birth weight, and sometimes death. While the withdrawal symptoms negatively impact the fetus (especially if the woman is in her first or third trimester), medications like methadone have fewer negative side effects on the unborn child. The drug is combined with prenatal care, and programs at comprehensive heroin addiction treatment centers can reduce the detrimental outcomes associated with untreated heroin abuse.
Relationships and Heroin AbuseWomen addicted to heroin are more likely to be in a sexual relationship with a partner who uses drugs. In many cases, the male sexual partner administered the first dose of the drug. Studies also show female heroin addicts are more likely to come from a dysfunctional family.
Unique Challenges Women Face When Dealing With AddictionWomen with addiction face some unique challenges. First, there’s the stigma associated with female addicts for mothers in particular. Secondly, many female addicts need professional help but feel too ashamed and afraid to seek it. Other possible barriers include less income, fear of losing custody of kids, child care responsibilities, lack of access to resources, and feelings of worthlessness. Also, the recovery process is different. Women create relationships and recover faster than men. They take their worth from the quality of their existing relationships. Since addiction is incredibly isolating, recovery programs can be an excellent place to connect with others overcoming the same challenges.
Signs and Symptoms of Heroin AddictionHeroin is addictive and poses both long-term and short-term effects, including life-threatening risks. Intravenous heroin users are particularly susceptible to developing infections like hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Heroin addicts also have a higher risk of attempting suicide primarily through intentional overdoses. Other symptoms of heroin addiction include:
- Slurred speech
- Bipolar disorder
- Dry mouth
- Severe itchiness
- Collapsed veins
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea and vomiting
Signs and Symptoms of Heroin WithdrawalHeroin withdrawal symptoms are one of the reasons women are so prone to relapse. Addicts get stuck on a merry-go-round because the withdrawal period is long and painful. However much they want to recover, they often crave for a fix to the withdrawal symptoms. As such, they find themselves high again without remembering how they got back to the same spot. The withdrawal symptoms vary based on how frequently the addict used the drug and the amount administered. Symptoms peak three to seven days after withdrawal. The most common symptoms include:
- Aching muscles
- Watery nose
- Excessive yawning
- Drug cravings
- Difficulties sleeping
Options at Heroin Addiction Treatment CentersThe high prevalence of sexual abuse and other gender-based factors among female addicts means that women are more likely to recover in women-only heroin addiction treatment centers. Such programs make women feel comfortable, not to mention the holistic approach to treatment. Here are some options for a woman at heroin addiction treatment centers: The first step to overcoming heroin addiction is to detox from heroin. Heroin addiction treatment centers has a team of professionals to supervise and monitor the addict throughout the process. They may prescribe medication to reduce discomfort, cravings, and future use. Medications include:
- Methadone: Often referred to as Dolophine and used as a short-term detox medication. Methadone makes it easier for the addict to abstain from heroin by reducing cravings. It should only be prescribed by a physician because it is also addictive.
- Buprenorphine: This drug is used to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It does have a high risk of acute withdrawal symptoms if taken with heroin, so addicts need to be committed to recovery.
- Naltrexone: This medication prevents heroin from reaching opioid receptors in the brain to prevent the body from achieving the euphoric effect addicts look for.