Ask an Expert: Does a Needle Mean His Addiction is Getting Worse?

By Tonja Bagwell MA 11/22/16

Does the method of drug ingestion have anything to do with the level of addiction?

2 syringes on the floor.
Is this worse?

I know that my son has been dabbling in heroin for a while, but I recently found a syringe in his dresser drawer and I'm freaking out. It seems to me that it means that his abuse is getting worse. Does using a needle mean that somebody is addicted, more than smoking or snorting the drug?

Tonja Bagwell:

Dear Parent,

Addiction is not determined by the method the person uses to get their drug of choice into their system. Smoking or ingesting heroin pulls it into the bloodstream via the lungs. Snorting or inhaling heroin pulls it into the bloodstream via the nasal passages. Injecting or shooting heroin pulls it into the bloodstream via the veins. Blood runs directly through the veins, so injecting delivers heroin quickly and the high is more intense. The key factor is heroin entering the bloodstream. If there is a physiological and psychological craving and dependence, there is an addiction. Your son could already be addicted whether he is smoking, snorting or injecting, depending on how long “a while” really is. Again, the delivery method is not relevant in determining an addiction.

Users can be at different levels of addiction. Your son could have a mild, medium or severe addiction. The fact that you think he is now injecting heroin with a needle may indicate that he wants or needs to feel a rapid surge of euphoria. According to heroin users, this is a feeling that can only be experienced by injecting heroin directly into their veins. The rush lasts a short time, but users want to feel it over and over. Your son could have switched to a needle because he heard about the euphoric rush. Or, his tolerance is not allowing him to feel the same pleasure he once did with smoking or snorting.

Before the tolerance or dependence is developed, some users swear they would never shoot drugs into their veins. They are concerned with the risk of disease. If the user progresses to using a needle, it could mean an addiction has intensified. At the intense stage, addicts do not necessarily think about nor care about the risk of disease that comes with using a dirty needle. Their only concern is feeling the rush of euphoria they can only get from injecting heroin with a needle. 

Heroin is an extremely addictive and harmful substance that can hook the user after the first or second use. Some people are not genetically susceptible to a physiological addiction. Statistics reveal that approximately 25 percent of heroin users become dependent. Could your son still be a dabbler rather than an addict? Yes, it is possible. I will assume that you are unaware of how long “a while” is that your son has been dabbling. If he has progressed to injecting it intravenously, he could have been using it for days, weeks or months. Depending on your son’s age, his temperament, environment, mental functioning, and income, he could be a functioning addict for a while. If he has a few traits typically seen in addicts, i.e. risk-taker, thrill-seeker, impulsive, dishonest, and manipulative, a problematic life awaits him if he continues to inject heroin. Whether he has those traits or if he is a functioning user, the risk of a fatal overdose is a serious concern for anyone who abuses heroin. Editor's Note: You and anyone else who spends time with your son should make sure to have naloxone (Narcan) on hand in case of overdose. You can get naloxone at many pharmacies without a prescription.

Tonja Bagwell, MA, CADC, ICADC, LMT is experienced in motivating clients with a solution-focused, person-centered, and systemic approach that is compassionate and considerate of the clients’ holistic needs. Full bio.

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