An abscess can develop when bacteria enter a person’s body, such as by injection. Abscesses are skin and soft infections that can occur with even needle use. An untreated abscess related to heroin or other drugs can lead to dire consequences, such as infection of the bones or heart, sepsis, amputation, or death.
Studies have found that up to one-third of individuals who inject administer drugs intravenously currently have or recently some type of skin abscess or infection. The opioid heroin is the most commonly injected drug, and because of this, those who inject it may be at significant risk of developing an abscess.
What Is a Heroin Abscess?
As noted, a heroin abscess is an infection of the skin and soft tissue that causes pus to collect in or underneath the skin.
When an infection is in an individual skin, it’s called a cutaneous abscess. Conversely, an infection that exists below the skin’s surface is referred to as a subcutaneous abscess.
Abscesses most often occur where the heroin is injected. However, an abscess can develop almost anywhere. Heroin abscesses on the extremities are common, as these are popular injection sites for the drug. Although some abscesses develop almost immediately, they usually take a few days to develop fully.
An abscess can take two forms: exploding and impounding. The former breaks through the skin and is visible on the surface. The latter has pus forming beneath the skin, where it continues to spread but does not breach the skin’s surface.
Heroin Abscess Signs and Symptoms
When a person develops an abscess, they may experience chills, fever, or swollen lymph nodes. In addition, the abscess site may be red, shiny, swollen, warm, tender, and painful.
An abscess may emit a foul smell and ooze thick, cloudy pus ranging from white to greenish or yellowish-brown when pressure is applied or when the wound is bumped.
Needle Injection and Abscesses
Injecting heroin can introduce harmful bacteria into an individual’s body. Heroin may be injected into the vein, muscle, or just beneath the skin. An abscess can develop as a result of any of these ways. However, users who inject under the skin (aka skin-popping) have a five times higher risk of developing an abscess. An individual may do this on purpose, but skin popping often occurs when the user attempts to inject heroin and misses the vein.
Unsanitary injection practices, including using unsterile or shared needles, can raise the risk of bacteria entering a person’s body. In turn, individuals who engage in these practices may have a higher likelihood of getting an abscess.
Risk factors for injection abscesses include the following:
- Unclean or dirty heroin needles tend to carry higher numbers of bacteria that produce abscesses. Failing to clean or sanitize a syringe may also result in more bacteria being present.
- Using saliva to clean a needle does not sanitize it, and this is a relatively common practice among heroin users. Doing this could expose the user to oral bacteria that produce abscesses as well.
- Sharing a needle can easily transmit bacteria from one user to the next.
- Using a needle repeatedly can cause it to become dull, creating more damage at the injection site. This can make the skin and soft tissues more prone to infection.
Causes of Heroin Abscesses
In addition to being found on the heroin syringe, abscess-inducing bacteria may also be on the person’s skin. For example, staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria commonly found on the skin, is frequently responsible for cutaneous or skin abscesses from injecting heroin.
Failure to properly clean the injection site or not washing hands before an injection could increase the likelihood that abscess-causing bacteria enter a person’s body through injection. Injecting the drug frequently or injecting it into an already damaged site may also raise this risk. Chronic heroin abuse can also impair a person’s immune system and make it more difficult for their body to fight off infection.
Heroin is frequently laced with other drugs or chemical contaminants. Therefore, injecting impure or laced heroin could lead to an abscess. In addition, when an adulterant passes into an individual’s vein or body, it can obstruct the vein, a condition that could result in an abscess.
Heroin may be combined with cocaine and injected, a combination referred to as a speedball. The dangers of speedballing are many, and mixing heroin and cocaine in this way can lead to an abscess.
Heroin Abscess Dangers and Complications
According to research, abscesses are among the top two reasons that intravenous drug users visit an emergency department or are admitted to a hospital. An untreated heroin abscess may result in other infections or medical problems, many of which may prove life-threatening.
The complications and risks of heroin abscesses include the following:
- Chronic abscesses that reoccur in those who have been injecting for several years
- Skin ulcers, gangrene, or tissue death
- Gangrene or tissue death
- Maggots infestation
- Osteomyelitis and infection from an untreated abscess/ulcer that may move into the bone
- Amputation if needed due to gangrene
- Sepsis or septic shock caused by bacterial infection from an abscess or gangrene
- Endocarditis, inflammation of the heart caused by persistent infection
- Tetanus, a bacteria that can release toxins and cause major damage
If a heroin abscess is suspected, please seek professional help to reduce the risk of these potentially severe and even lethal complications.
Heroin Abscess Treatment
Although some skin and tissue infections may heal independently, an untreated abscess could lead to serious health problems. In addition, treating an abscess at home could result in inadequate care and complications. For this reason, professional medical treatment may be advised.
In some instances, a health provider may make an incision and drain the pus from the abscess. Analgesia or hospital treatment may be necessary under some circumstances. Antibiotics will also be given to treat the infection.
If an abscess has produced any other medical complications, further treatment may be required. For example, conditions like septic shock or endocarditis could necessitate intensive treatment and hospital admission.
Getting Treatment for Heroin Abuse and Addiction
Getting clean can help a person avoid future abscesses and other dangers of heroin abuse.
While the best rehab programs for heroin addiction can help a person’s body heal, people with heroin-related severe medical problems may need specialized medical care or hospital-based services before rehab.
Once a person is stable, they can transition to detox and on to long-term treatment. However, heroin can cause severe physical dependence, and because of this, a medical detox program to address this program is often recommended.
When a person has completed detox, they can transition to residential rehab. Comprehensive residential programs for heroin addiction, such as those offered by Just Believe Recovery, can often provide the highest level of care. Residential addiction treatment offers a sober community where a person can heal their body, mind, and spirit from addiction.