5 things to know to save a heroin addict

The shame that comes with heroin addiction keeps people from making informed decisions about their own addictions or those of loved ones. Here's a list of five key ideas that can help save a life.

1) The window for recovery from addiction is three to five years, not two weeks.

That's according to Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a government research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. NIDA is a part of the National Institutes of Health.

During those three to five years, a recovering addict needs to be connected to an ongoing support group (a 12-step or other program with professional support services) and monitoring, meaning urine testing and someone checking to see if appointments are being kept. Medication-Assisted Treatment, such as treatment with methadone, is one option. Even someone who appears to be doing well in life remains at serious risk of relapsing without that structure, and that means at serious risk of dying.

An addict's brain is wired to use a substance as a short-term fix for stress. It takes three to five years for the brain's reward centers to be rewired through sobriety.

Getting through that period of time does not mean an addict is cured, Compton said. But their chances of remaining sober for the next 10 years rises dramatically. Some people take longer than that window of time.

2) The most dangerous time for an addict is right after getting abstinent or after a period of abstinence and then going on with life: after leaving a rehabilitation clinic, a detox center, or self detox, or right after leaving jail or prison. The body's tolerance to opioids drops and those relapsing frequently guess at the correct dose - or take the same as their last fix. It is often a fatal mistake. And that fatal mistake is occurring more frequently now that the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl is turning up more often in heroin packets.

3) "People, places and things" associated with an addiction can kill. That's because memories are a critical part of addictions, research on the brain shows. Drifting back to old friends, significant others, bars, workplaces or other things that led to or furthered an addiction is a red flag to a relapse.

4) Silence kills: The stigma surrounding drug addiction is a steep challenge to getting people help. There can be real consequences for disclosing a loved one's addiction or one's own. But the trade-off can be death. Not speaking about it limits the information getting to addicts, their families and their friends that could save their lives. And silence perpetuates the stigma.

5) Have the overdose antidote naloxone on hand in the home. It is available without a prescription at CVS and Walgreens. Paul Ressler, the executive director of TOPAC, The Overdose Prevention Agency in Hamilton, suggests buying two, two-pack packages. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, is turning up in more heroin samples and is killing scores of people in New Jersey. It could take that many doses of naloxone to revive someone from an overdose involving fentanyl, he said. TOPAC trains groups and individuals in the use of naloxone. TOPAC can be reached at 609-581-0600.



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