We like to think of heroin as a drug reserved for the seedy underbelly of society. It lurks in back alleys and behind closed doors. But in today’s opioid crisis, the drug is making its way into places you may expect are safe from heroin drug effects. Suburban moms, teen athletes, young professionals – opioid addiction can happen to people from all walks of life.
What is Heroin?
Heroin, or diamorphine, is an opioid drug that is made from morphine which comes from the seed pod of a poppy plant. Traditional heroin comes from Southeast and Southwest Asia and is traded on the black market in the form of a brown or white powder. Another version of the drug known as black tar heroin is often made processed in Colombia and traded through Mexico. The process leaves impurities that result in a sticky black substance rather than the typical powder. Black tar also poses a greater risk for bacterial infections and vein sclerosis.
Heroin can be smoked, snorted, or inhaled but is most often injected intravenously. Like other opioids, it’s used as a pain reliever in some countries, but it was banned in the United States since 1924. Before that, it was marketed as a cough suppressant alternative to morphine. At the time, people believed that it wasn’t as addictive as morphine or opium.
Heroine’s effects usually occur quickly after being administered and can last up to 5 hours, depending on dosage. Heroin will quickly bind to opioid receptors that are involved with pain, pleasure, heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. It also activates and alters the reward center of the brain.
Heroin Drug Effects on the Body
Heroin is a downer, which means it has a depressing or tranquilizing effect. For people who recreational use heroin, the desired effect is pain relief, euphoric relaxation, and body high. Taking heroin is typically described as a warm rush coming over the body and a surge of comfort and pleasure. Other physical effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Flushing of the skin
- Itchy skin
- Slipping in and out of consciousness
- Impaired mental function
Since heroin affects opioid receptors that are involved in automatic bodily functions, it can suppress breathing and lower the user’s heart rate. In fact, breathing can be severely affected which can be life-threatening. Slowed breathing caused by heroin can lead to coma, brain damage, and death.
Long-term use can also cause insomnia, collapsed veins, infection in the heart lining, abscesses, constipation, liver disease, lung complications (like pneumonia), and erectile dysfunction or irregular menstruation.
Heroin Drug Effects on the Brain
Heroin affects opioid receptors that affect the limbic system in the brain. This causes an overall pleasurable effect and mental relaxation. Heroin addiction is a disease of the reward center of the brain that causes intense desire for continued use of the drug. Studies show that heavy heroin users are more impulsive, which can explain extreme measures some addicts go to when seeking drugs.
Once a user becomes dependent, withdrawal will set in if they go too long without heroin. Withdrawal symptoms can cause insomnia, irritability, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Potential Heroin Drug Effects of Illicit Use
There are many possible heroin drug effects that are not directly caused by heroin but are commonly associated with its illicit use. Intravenous injection on the street is dangerous, especially when sharing needles. Deadly viruses like hepatitis C and HIV are often spread as a byproduct of heroin use.
Other infections are commonly contracted when sharing needles and when impure substances are included in heroin. Sometimes, heroin dealers or users dilute the drug with another substance that can be toxic. Typical additives like sugar, starch, and powdered milk can cause strokes or other complications when they clog arteries that lead to the lungs or brain.
Some organizations have started needle exchange programs to curb health issues in heroin-addicted populations that are caused by dirty needles. This has proved to decrease the risk HIV and has not increased the use of heroin. However, needle exchange programs remain a controversial issue and does not answer the problem of addiction or infection due to heroin impurity.
Addiction and Overdose Potential
The risk for tolerance and addiction in heroin is very high. Opioids in general are extremely addictive and some heroin users started of by getting addicted to pain medication like oxycodone. Though less than 4 percent of opioid pain medication users make the switch to heroin, it’s a growing issue. In fact, 80 percent of heroin users had previously used prescription opioids.
In rare but poignant cases, some people who are given prescription opioids for injuries or operations become addicted and turn to heroin when pills become too difficult to acquire or finance.
Heroine itself has a profound effect on the reward system that leads to addiction and dependency. Because of increasing tolerance levels, users often increase the dosage and many eventually overdose.
Currently, a new trend in opioid use is leading to deadly overdoses all over the country. Manufacturers and dealers are mixing heroin with a more potent opioid. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin. When users who take a heroin-appropriate dose of fentanyl, they are taking an extremely high dose. The drug, which can be deadly even in small amounts, is often sold as heroin without the buyer knowing, which leads to high-risk situations.
In total, heroin accounted for nearly 13,000 overdose deaths in the US in 2015. Heroin overdoses have risen dramatically since the early 2000s. Opioids overall accounted for almost 35,000 overdose deaths in 2015.
Treating Heroin Addiction
Though heroin is powerfully addictive, addiction is a treatable disease with many different possible methods. Pharmaceutical treatments are available to curb addiction and withdrawal symptoms. Medications like buprenorphine and methadone are commonly used. In some countries, medical professionals administer heroin in increasingly small doses to wean patients off the drug.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and other addiction treatment techniques are used to help people in recovery maintain their sobriety and avoid relapse. Because addiction is chronic, continued participation in 12-step programs is often the best way to remain clean.
If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin or opioid addiction, help is just a phone call away. Call Pathway to Hope at 844-557-8575 to find out your options.