Heroin Track Marks
What Are Heroin Track Marks?
Heroin is a morphine-derived opioid that is commonly abused in the United States. Many people who are addicted to prescription opioids move on to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.
Heroin can be injected, smoked, snorted, or sniffed. If heroin is injected into a vein frequently, marks will be visible on the skin. These marks are called heroin track marks and they are most often seen on the arms, hands, and legs.
If you notice track marks on a loved one you should be concerned. Using drugs intravenously or “shooting up” is one of the most dangerous ways to abuse heroin or any substance.
Some people like injecting heroin because it produces a faster, stronger high. However, intravenous use also puts the user at risk of infection, overdose, addiction, and even death.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 11 million people around the world inject drugs. Of that number, 1.4 million have HIV and 39.4 percent have viremic hepatitis C.
This is because many intravenous drug users share needles. If you can tell when someone is shooting up heroin, you may be able to stop their addiction before it worsens.
Why People Inject Heroin
If you don’t use drugs, you may find it hard to understand why people inject heroin or any other substance into their bodies. However, many regular users see injection as the most obvious method of consumption.
Intravenous drug use is the fastest way to feel the effects of any substance.
Many people who become addicted to heroin start out as prescription drug users. They may abuse opioids in pill form for a few months until their tolerance increases, driving them to use more and more pills to get the effects they desire.
Sourcing large numbers of prescription opioids is costly so some people crush the pills and snort the powder to get a faster, more potent high.
With continued use, the person’s tolerance increases yet again and they need to find a new way to get the effect they’re after. This is when some people turn to shooting up heroin.
If you notice heroin track marks on an individual who you can’t imagine would do something like this, it’s probably because they’ve tried all the other methods of consumption. Intravenous use may now be the only way they can get the intense high they seek.
What Do Heroin Track Marks Look Like?
Heroin track marks are discolored areas that appear along a vein that was damaged by intravenous drug use. There may be scarring of the vein or small puncture wounds in various stages of healing.
New injection sites may be pink or bright red or the skin may have already developed a scab or scar tissue. Older track marks may have pink or white healed scars. Some track marks look like bruises.
Since track marks are a telltale sign of intravenous drug use, people often try to hide them. They may wear long-sleeved shirts or jackets even when the weather is warm.
Where Should I Look for Heroin Marks?
You may first notice heroin track marks on the forearms or inside the crook of the elbow since this is where most people start injecting heroin. These areas are commonly used because they are visible to the user and quite easy to inject into.
The scars may also be located close to a large vein on the back of the hand or wrist because the veins are close to the surface and easily accessible. Typically, the marks will be on the hand the person doesn’t use for writing and other tasks.
This makes it easier for the person to inject themselves. However, if they get someone to inject the drug for them, the track marks could be in their dominant hand.
People who inject heroin into their arms can easily hide the scars with bandaids, makeup, or long sleeves.
If they run out of suitable veins in the forearms, some people move onto the hands since the veins there are also highly visible. However, it’s harder to hide track marks on the hands.
You should also be on the lookout for heroin track marks on legs and feet, especially the inner thigh. Many people turn to the lower extremities when the veins in the hands and arms collapse or become too damaged.
While the veins at the top of the feet can be easy to inject into, those in the legs can be deeper under the skin. Still, they may be used. Some people even start their intravenous use in this part of the body because they can wear pants and socks to hide the marks.
These are not the only areas you need to look at. Some people start injecting in the groin, face, chest, or neck when other veins get too damaged or scarred.
Essentially, heroin injection scars can appear anywhere on the body where veins are close to the surface. When a person moves away from the arms, legs, hands, or feet, their addiction is severe and they’re doing irreversible damage to their bodies.
It’s important to note that track marks don’t always mean a person is currently using drugs. If an injection site is used repeatedly, the scars may not fade without help from a cosmetic surgeon.
Since this type of surgery is usually expensive and not covered by insurance, most people don’t get it. About half of all former IV drug abusers still have track marks five years after they stop using.
Why Does Heroin Leave Track Marks?
Any type of intravenous drug use can lead to track marks but they are more common in heroin users. These marks can develop because of repeated injections into the same vein.
Constantly damaging the skin can result in the development of scabs and scar tissue. Sometimes, the puncture wounds become infected and this can make the damage more visible.
If an individual used dirty or dull needles, this makes scarring more likely since used needles won’t puncture the skin cleanly.
Not cleaning the surface of the skin before injecting heroin can introduce foreign matter, fungi, and bacteria into the vein. This increases the chances of vein damage caused by infection or inflammation.
The heroin itself can also irritate the vein. If it is not mixed with sterile water, it can introduce harmful bacteria into the bloodstream.
A mixture that is too acidic, too alkaline, or too concentrated can also lead to irritation and inflammation. Furthermore, toxins in the drug can build up in the veins and make them dark.
Side Effects Associated with Track Marks
Heroin track marks aren’t only unsightly. The use of intravenous drugs is linked to numerous risks and side effects. The risk of infection is significant.
If an infection is introduced into the blood, it requires urgent medical attention. Infection can spread throughout the body and reach the organs including the heart and brain.
Another risk is that of collapsed veins. This can happen after a vein is punctured multiple times.
When a vein collapses, normal blood flow is compromised and it becomes very difficult for the individual to inject into the vein again. Attempting to do so is painful and it can cause swelling and further inflammation.
Meanwhile, Bacterial infections can lead to the development of abscesses. An abscess is a swollen mass that can be tender, painful, and warm to the touch. It is filled with pus and debris.
If a person develops an abscess because of intravenous drug use, they need to see a doctor to have the area drained. They may also need to take antibiotics to get rid of the infection.
Severe scar tissue can develop in people who inject heroin frequently. This is especially likely to occur if injection sites aren’t allowed to heal before they are used again. Some veins become so scarred that they can never be used for intravenous access again.
Cellulitis can also develop. This is a skin and soft tissue infection that’s typically caused by staphylococcus aureus. Signs of cellulitis include blisters, redness, swelling, tenderness, dimpled skin, and inflammation.
The person may also experience fatigue, stiff joints, and fever and/or chills. Without proper care, cellulitis can spread, leading to:
- Bone infection
- Heart infection
- Lymph vessel inflammation
Can You Do Heroin and Not Have Track Marks?
Maybe you suspect that a loved one is using heroin but you don’t see any track marks. It could be that they’re snorting or smoking the drug.
However, some people are extremely careful especially in the early stages of use. They use clean, sharp needles and they make sure everything is properly sterilized.
Also, sometimes track marks heal and don’t leave a lot of scar tissue. If wounds are cleaned, treated, and covered, they may heal quite inconspicuously.
Topical dark mark reduction products can also be applied to new scars to help them fade faster. In addition, older track marks can be almost invisible if they’re never re-punctured.
However, marks tend to linger on areas of the body that have thin skin such as the top of the hands and feet. Even after the wounds have healed, there may be visible damage to the skin and veins that’s irreversible.
As addiction progresses and the individual needs to constantly find new injection sites, the track marks may become much more obvious. The individual may not even care enough to try to hide them.
Why IV Drug Use is So Dangerous
Using illicit drugs or abusing prescription drugs is inherently risky. However, there are specific risks associated with intravenous drug use. One of the biggest concerns is developing a substance use disorder.
As we noted earlier, people like shooting up heroin because it produces a faster, more intense high than that produced by snorting or smoking.
However, that high can go away quickly, driving the individual to use the drug time and time again. Repeatedly abusing substances almost always leads to addiction.
Another serious risk is that of overdose. Not only do the effects of heroin kick in within seconds but the user really can’t be certain what they’re taking.
Heroin can be cut with any number of fillers and additives ranging from sugar, baking soda, and talcum powder to rat poison and fentanyl. Since the full dose hits the user at one time, overdose can easily occur.
IV heroin use also leads to long-term, sometimes life-threatening health risks such as:
- Infections – These can include infections of the blood, skin, bones, and joints.
- Thrombosis – This is a condition where blood clots develop in the veins. Complications include stroke and heart attack.
- Endocarditis – This is an inflammation of the heart’s lining that can lead to heart damage and death.
- Sexually transmitted diseases – STDs that can be transmitted via needle sharing include HIV, syphilis, and Hepatitis B and C.
- Chronic venous insufficiency. This is a condition in which blood flow from the feet and legs to the heart is obstructed.
Learn More About Heroin Addiction from The Discovery House
If you have noticed what appear to be heroin track marks on a loved one, you’re right to be concerned.
It may be time to talk to them about what’s going on or talk to an addiction professional about how you should proceed. IV heroin use presents lots of dangers and addiction can be deadly so you shouldn’t waste time.
At The Discovery House in Los Angeles, we offer a full continuum of care that includes detox, inpatient rehab, and aftercare planning.
Call us today to learn about our evidence-based addiction treatment programs and all the services we offer in our luxury rehab facility.