Over time you have noticed that your arm, where you frequently inject heroin, has formed a firm, red bump. The area is warm and painful with yellow liquid just under the surface. You decide just to pop it and get it over with. What harm could be done by letting the liquid out? However, a few days after you popped it, it hurt even worse, and red streaks appeared near the site.
At this point you might self-medicate to ease the pain or take a chance and go to an urgent care that will accept Medicaid, your only way of paying for it. Urgent care informs you that it was a heroin abscess and that the infection is now spreading. They prescribe you an antibiotic to take care of the abscess.
Approximately 70,0000 Tennesseans use opioids such as heroin. At ReVIDA® Recovery, we accept Medicaid, and if you relapse after treatment with us, you are always welcome back.
Table of Contents
What Is a Heroin Abscess?
A heroin abscess is a buildup of fluid called pus under the skin due to an infection. It is often painful and requires medical attention with either antibiotics or fluid draining. It is considered a poison to your body. There is a 1 in 10,000 chance of developing an abscess from one-time syringe and needle use, but repeated injections can increase your chances. If left untreated, it can cause sepsis, making it very dangerous and potentially deadly.
What Causes a Heroin Abscess?
An abscess happens when white blood cells gather to fight an infection. In the case of heroin, infections can be caused by needle fragments e left behind in the skin, hepatitis B and C, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Hepatitis and HIV can be caused by sharing needles. A heroin abscess can also be caused by missing the vein, lack of proper sanitation, or lack of proper care at injection sites. This is because bacteria can get through cuts in the skin, such as a hole made from a needle.
Heroin Abscess: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications
Signs of a heroin abscess look like swelling under the skin that feels firm. It is also warm and red in the infected area, with visible white or yellow pus. If you have a heroin abscess, it will also be painful in that area.
Symptoms of a heroin abscess include:
- Increased sweating
- Weight loss
Having a heroin abscess can cause a range of complications. These include the spread of the infection in the area or throughout the body and gangrene, which is the death of your tissues. A heroin abscess can also cause sepsis, which can lead to death.
What Can Happen if Heroin Abscess Is Left Untreated?
Sometimes an abscess will drain on its own with proper care that includes cleaning, ice, and heat, but it will not always do this. If you continue using heroin in that area, it increases the risk of new or worsening infections. Only a trained doctor should open and drain an abscess if needed to prevent further infection. If a heroin abscess is left untreated, it can spread throughout the bloodstream. When this happens, you might begin to feel sick. You might also develop sepsis, meningitis, and endocarditis.
There might also be a destruction of arteries. Sepsis is caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream and damaging multiple organs. Meningitis is a swelling of fluid around the spinal cord and brain. Endocarditis is a swelling of the lining of the heart. All three of these conditions are potentially life-threatening if they also go untreated.
Most Common Places in the Body That an Abscess Forms
A heroin abscess can form in any place that heroin is injected.
The most common places heroin is injected into include:
- Upper Arm
Spread of Infection
Leaving an abscess untreated makes it more likely to spread through your body. The biggest sign that the infection has spread through your body is when you see red streaks leading away from the abscess. You might also have a fever of 102℉ and tender lymph nodes between the abscess and chest.
Gangrene is when your body’s tissues begin to die. It is a serious condition that mostly affects your toes, fingers, legs, and arms. It can also impact your organs. Infections cause it and have a high chance of death. Those who survive often have life-long complications. Treatment is often focused on restoring blood flow through anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics, but this is not always possible. When this happens, a bypass surgery that bypasses or removes the infected area is used. In extreme cases, amputation is used.
If you leave an abscess untreated for too long, there is a small chance that it will result in that area of your body needing to be amputated. This happens if the infection cannot be controlled or is getting worse. It can also happen if you lose function in the limb or if you lose feeling in the limb. If you do receive an amputation, a dressing and possible tubing will be attached to the end of the limb amputated for a minimum of 3 days. Before you leave the hospital, you will learn how to use a wheelchair, strengthen your remaining limbs, and how to care for your missing limb.
Things to Know About an Abscess From Heroin
20-32% of people who inject heroin regularly will receive an abscess. Of those people, 27-40% have tried to open their abscesses by themselves, and 16-26% have tried to use illegally obtained antibiotics to self-treat the abscess. Both of these options are dangerous to do.
Opening your abscess by yourself increases the chance of infection because it can push the infection further into the body. This will increase the cost of properly treating your abscess. This is because pushing the infection further into the body increases the chance of it spreading.
Heroin might be illegal, but you still deserve to get medical attention.
Getting Treatment for Heroin Use Disorder
The best way to avoid abscesses associated with heroin use disorder is to seek treatment from a trusted medical professional. While heroin withdrawal symptoms might seem scary, they are necessary to allow your body to remove heroin from your system. They typically start within 12 hours and peak at 3 days.
These symptoms include:
- Hot and cold flashes
At ReVIDA® Recovery, we offer a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program where you will be prescribed Suboxone® (buprenorphine). This medication will help make the symptoms and cravings associated with withdrawal more manageable so that you can focus on your other areas of recovery. Group and individual therapy will provide a safe space to learn skills necessary for your recovery. At ReVIDA® Recovery, you will meet with peer recovery specialists, certified counselors, licensed therapists, and care coordinators.
ReVIDA® Recovery is located throughout Tennessee and Virginia, allowing you to receive treatment close to home. We provide you with personalized assistance, including court letters and finding a job, because we want to help you reclaim your life. For more information, call us at 423-631-0432.
Why do heroin users get abscesses?
Heroin users can get abscesses due to repeated use of needles and syringes. This can be from poor sanitation or care of the injection sites. Abscesses can also be caused by infections associated with sharing or reusing needles such as hepatitis and HIV.
What do abscesses from IV drug use look like?
An abscess is a firm, red swelling under the skin. It will often have visible white or yellow pus under the skin’s surface. It is also painful. If the abscess has started to spread, red streaks can be seen coming from the abscess.
Can you do heroin abscess drainage at home?
You should never do heroin abscess drainage at home. Draining an abscess without medical assistance often leads to further or worsening infections as you push the infection deeper into the body.