Heroin causes a variety of interactions in both the brain and the body. Some of these effects are purely psychological, such as the euphoria that can come after using the drug. Others are linked to the physiological impact that heroin has on all aspects of the human body. The unpleasant side effect of itching can belong in both categories.
What Form of Heroin Causes Itchiness?
Heroin can be used in multiple ways. Some people prefer using one method over another due to the time it takes for the drug to influence the body. Whether smoked, snorted or injected, the side effects are usually the same. Regardless of how fast the effects take place or how long it stays in the system, heroin is known for its incredible strength.
According to certain studies, injecting heroin appears to be the most harmful method of using heroin. Since the transmission of blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C can be transmitted easily through sharing needles, individuals addicted to heroin can face additional health issues. It is possible that it may take longer to develop a tolerance if heroin is sniffed, but the amount of drug used is much higher.
Although the time frame may differ, itchiness from heroin is a side effect that will often occur when any method of using heroin is applied. This sensation may subside after a few hours, or it may continue through the withdrawal stage. The reasons for itchiness depend on the individual, the heroin used and the surrounding circumstances.
What Heroin Itchiness Is Like
An itch from a bug bite or poison ivy can be extremely aggravating. When a bug bite occurs, the immune system produces a certain amount of histamine. When histamine increases the blood flow, white blood cells surround the area. If the immune system is successful, histamine will produce inflammation and swelling. The itch ultimately occurs from the nerves around the bite.
If an individual uses heroin, the itch is not usually centered in one spot. Itching can occur at the injection site, but this is usually caused by a reaction to heroin use rather than the heroin itself. Heroin itching can be felt throughout the entire body and is usually accompanied by a change in body temperature or sweating.
The itching sensation caused by heroin can travel throughout the legs, arms, face and torso. Because the sensation is so strong, the compulsion to scratch can cause scabs or lesions on various parts of the body. Heroin itch can be a dangerous effect if scratching becomes severe. Infection is likely for those who have open wounds or untreated scabs.
What Are the Common Causes for Itching?
The three most common factors for heroin itch include nerve receptors, infection and the immune response.
- Nerve receptors: The nervous system is an organized group of cells that conducts electrochemical stimuli. In short, this impacts sensory perception and response. Nerve receptors detect a change in stimulation from both external and internal factors. When the sensation of itchiness occurs from using heroin, those feelings are transmitted from the skin to the brain. Specific neurons in the skin provide receptors that heroin can connect to. During this connection, the itch signal is then passed along to the brain to create an uncomfortable feeling.
- Infection: Heroin can cause multiple types of injuries. If a person is snorting heroin, the nasal cavities can become damaged. Smoking heroin injures the lungs. One of the most common infections is due to injecting heroin. Heroin that has been injected multiple times in the same area can cause damage to the skin and bleeding. If an open wound is not treated, this can become a dangerous infection that may need immediate medical attention. Regardless of the reason for injury, infection can cause itchiness. Injection injuries are more likely to itch at the site of injection. Abscesses that do heal can also cause itching as the inflammation helps restore health.
- The immune system: Inflammation helps infections by producing histamines. When heroin enters the body, it can be mistaken for allergens or chemicals. As an automatic response, the immune system fights back. Attacking non-allergens with histamines can often create a reaction that feels like allergies.
In addition to the active use of heroin, detoxification can cause itchiness. The withdrawal period is often an intense process when many individuals seek professional detox programs. Because common symptoms include sweating and anxiety, this can cause many people to scratch or pick at the skin. The body is especially vulnerable at this stage and may need medicine to help ease certain physical pain.
Skin Picking vs. Itching
Itching may feel like a burning sensation. With heroin use, once an itchy area is scratched, the skin only feels relief for a short period of time. Since heroin blunts the feeling of physical pain, many individuals do not realize when to stop scratching. This phenomenon is similar to skin picking, but there are some key differences.
Skin picking does not require an itch. While many people do pick at itchy scabs or bug bites, picking can occur for psychological reasons. Anxiety is a well-known after-effect once heroin begins to leave the body. Picking at the skin can be used as a distraction method or a way to calm nerves. Picking can also be compulsory after intense scratching. Both behaviors are frequently seen in those with substance use disorders.
Skin picking does not usually cause severe health effects. Unless infection is present, this behavior rarely requires emergency care. Individuals who do pick at the skin, however, may already have health issues. Skin picking and scratching can be caused by obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Some professionals have gone so far as to say it might be considered a form of self-mutilation.
How to Stop Scratching From Heroin Use
There is no formal treatment to eradicate heroin itch, but there are ways to feel better. Since itchiness caused by heroin usually impacts the entire body, small bottles of cortisone cream will likely not help. Depending on the pharmacy, many stores provide over-the-counter sprays and even bath salts to alleviate discomfort.
Other ways to stop scratching include distractions. Keeping both hands busy can distract from the intensity of heroin itch. Certain ways to keep busy include writing, drawing, brushing hair, playing cards or holding two water bottles in each hand.
Emotional reasons for scratching can be eased by identifying specific triggers. Those who use heroin may have experienced pain or trauma before or because of using. When there are intense emotional reactions to the surrounding environment, scratching can be a way to feel in control of the body. Avoiding these triggers can decrease the coping method of scratching.
Asking others to help is a good way to stay accountable. Sometimes, having another person point out active behavior can create a positive change. Many individuals using heroin are unaware of their own scratching and may not even feel the benefits.
Harm Reduction for Severe Itching
If scratching persists despite using over-the-counter remedies and distractions, reducing harm is necessary. Scratching from heroin use can cause permanent scarring and infection if it is not efficiently minimized.
Sharp nails can feel better when scratching, but they cause more damage. Keeping a person’s nails short is not enough. To avoid future pain, clipping nails so that they are smooth around the edges is better for the skin. This can also be more hygienic if scratching is done on bare skin.
Another way to reduce the severity of scratching is to wear gloves. These can be basic plastic gloves found at a convenience store or cloth gloves. If the itch is overwhelming, this is one way to be able to scratch without causing damage to the skin. If gloves cannot be found or purchased, wrapping hands in socks or other stray fabric can also make a difference.
Tweezers and pins should be kept out of reach. Using instruments to pick or scratch while on heroin can create larger welts or broken scabs. Safety pins and other small, pointed, objects can be replaced with flatter, blunted objects. These can include spoons or markers.
Having a cold compress can ease moderate itching. By using a washcloth with water that is just a few degrees colder than regular tap water, the skin can stay hydrated. Hot water is likely to dry out the skin and can cause additional flaking and irritation. While this method may not work for the entire body, it can be used in certain spots that are especially itchy. If this is done during the colder seasons, the temperature should be adjusted.
What Can Heroin Do to the Skin?
Heroin can cause skin problems in a number of different ways. By scratching, skin can bleed or become rugged and red. In addition, heroin use can have a negative impact on skin because of the drug’s impurities, how it is used and unhealthy behaviors associated with using it.
Chapped lips frequently occur with heroin use. Because of dehydration, the skin becomes very dry. Dried skin also loses its elasticity, which can make people look slightly aged or tired. Using natural Vaseline as a treatment may help, but it is not a cure.
Skin tone can also change. People who have been using heroin for longer than a month can experience a slight discoloration in their skin. They may find they have a yellow or gray tint that won’t go away. This can be due to lack of nutrition or the drug itself.
Many individuals who use heroin cannot afford to think about a balanced diet because heroin addiction takes an enormous amount of energy and time. Without proper nutrition, the skin can experience changes, especially in the face. Bloating and acne are commonly associated with extremely powerful drugs.
Heroin Addiction Treatment in New England
The best way to avoid itching and skin damage due to heroin use is to stop taking the drug. Quitting an addiction alone is not easy, which is why professional treatment is available in New England.
The symptoms of heroin use can be unique depending on the individual and their circumstances. Physical manifestations like itching or shaking may need non-addictive medications to ease the discomfort of withdrawal. By incorporating a mental health program, both physical and psychological treatment can help alleviate depression, anxiety and cravings.
At Granite Recovery Center, we can provide multiple treatment options for a wide variety of clients. A one-size-fits-all mentality does not work in recovery, so all treatments are individualized to ensure the best chance of long-term sobriety. In addition to 12-step programs, Granite Recovery Center has a medication-assisted detox program as well as residential and outpatient therapies. Call us today to learn more.