Drug Use

What is heroin?

Heroin is a potent, addictive drug and part of the opioid family of drugs that includes oxycodone, codeine, methadone, and fentanyl. Heroin and codeine are both natural drugs whereas methadone and fentanyl are synthetic.

Heroin, also known as dope, fairy dust, or smack, is a highly addictive opioid derived from opium poppy plants. It is produced from morphine, a biologically active component of opium and prescription opioid used as a painkiller. Heroin is a highly addictive and dangerous substance that tends to have a higher risk of overdose compared to many other drugs.

Addiction to heroin can occur quickly with heroin use and can be very deadly. Heroin addiction can occur after just one time using. In almost all cases, heroin use leads to serious drug addiction. In addition, the deadly use of adding the opioid fentanyl to heroin has significantly increased opioid overdose rates and death from overdose as well.

How Does Heroin Affect the Body?

Heroin can be consumed by snorting, smoking, or injecting. It can be a white or brownish powder as well as a black, sticky substance known as black tar heroin. It is not uncommon to mix heroin with cocaine which is referred to as “speedballing”.

Once consumed, this dangerous drug reaches the brain quickly and begins acting on opioid receptors located in numerous areas. It particularly impacts the areas of the brain and opioid receptors dealing with pain and pleasure. Users report immediate feelings of warmth as well as a ‘rush’ which is a surge of feelings of pleasure or euphoria.

The effects of this opioid can last for several hours. How fast the psychoactive effects are felt and how long they last depend on both dosage amount as well as the method of consumption. Smoking or injecting heroin results in the most immediate effects.

Heroin can be mixed with certain additives which can lead to varying effects on the body. Heroin can be mixed with sugar, powdered milk, and even starch (thus, the name, white powder). It can be white, black, or brown powder, depending on the source and the added chemicals. Because of these additives, there can be dangerous side effects impacting the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and brain.

In addition, it’s vital to note that today more than ever before deadly fentanyl is being added more frequently and in larger amounts. This latest trend in part accounts for the increase in overdose deaths from heroin use.

Side Effects of Heroin

The side effects of heroin can be deadly and at best debilitating. It’s important to understand that once tolerance develops, more of the drug is needed to get that same ‘high’ again. Additionally, the highs last for shorter periods of time. As a result, users take higher doses more frequently and risk their lives to the deadly side effects of heroin.

Short-term side effects of heroin can include:

  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Pain relief
  • Dry mouth
  • Itching
  • Cold flashes
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Feelings of heaviness in limbs
  • Nodding out (going in and out of consciousness)
  • Skin that appears flushed or warm to the touch
  • Heart rate decreases
  • Respiration decreases
  • Hepatitis (often passed through shared needles)
  • Coma
  • Death

Long-term effects of heroin can include:

  • Collapsed veins (for those who inject it)
  • Abscesses
  • Stomach cramps
  • Infection of heart valves and heart lining
  • Constipation
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Pneumonia
  • Damaged nose tissue (for those who snort it)
  • Cravings
  • Mental disorders
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Menstrual cycle disruption
  • Hepatitis

Heroin is highly addictive and dangerous. While the short and long-term effects are serious, it’s vital to understand that there is a high risk of opioid overdose and death from an overdose when it comes to heroin use.

Immediate medical attention is required to survive a heroin overdose. Drugs like Naloxone can reverse opioid overdose by attaching to the opioid receptors and blocking the effects of other opioids. Naloxone comes in two different types, inhalers and injectable naloxone. The nasal spray is FDA-approved and the injectable naloxone was developed for self use or use in the community. If a heroin overdose is suspected, please don't delay medical treatment. And ultimately, treatment for heroin addiction is the antidote to overcoming heroin use disorder and having a fulfilling life.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), about 475,000 people in the United States 12 years of age and older reported using heroin in the last month and nearly 5 million reported using it at least once in their lives. As dangerous opioid and heroin addiction continue to grow, it’s important to know what to look for when it comes to heroin addiction.

Physical Symptoms from Opioid Use

  • Strong urges or cravings
  • Inability to control drug use despite negative consequences
  • Weakened body
  • Weight loss or changes in weight
  • Poor hygiene
  • Frequently being sick especially with respiratory issues
  • Excessive sweating
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Ongoing nausea and constipation
  • Small pupils
  • Unusual sleeping habits such as falling asleep unexpectedly
  • Frequently slurred or very slow speech
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Excessive itching

Behavioral Symptoms from Opioid Use

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Irritable or restlessness
  • Lying, stealing, and secretive behaviors
  • Anxiety
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of interest in former hobbies and activities enjoyed
  • Isolation and withdrawal from family and friends
  • Neglecting responsibilities like work, school, family
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants (to hide needle injection marks or track marks)
  • Hostility towards others particularly loved ones

Heroin addiction is a serious, life-threatening addiction. Getting help earlier on in the addiction is highly recommended to avoid severe consequences including heroin overdose. If you or someone you care about is using heroin and you think may have heroin use disorder, reaching out for help is the first step. This often hard to take step just may save your life or the life of your loved one.

When it comes to heroin addiction, stopping on your own can not only be incredibly difficult but also dangerous. The difficult withdrawal symptoms begin quickly and lead many to relapse and begin using the drug again. This is one reason why inpatient treatment with medical supervision is highly recommended for heroin addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin is both physically and psychologically addictive. When a person stops using this drug the withdrawal symptoms can be felt within just a few hours. Anyone who has used heroin for long periods of time or is a chronic heroin user can experience serious medical complications from stopping taking heroin abruptly. It’s vital to find the right treatment center that can help manage these difficult withdrawal symptoms.

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms of Heroin Use

  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Cramps in limbs
  • Cravings
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Appetite changes and decreases

Behavioral Withdrawal Symptoms of Heroin Use

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Hostility
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

When there are other medical conditions present in the individual stopping heroin use, these withdrawal symptoms can be more complicated and even life-threatening. However, there are medications that can be used to help navigate these difficult withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Heroin treatment usually begins with medically-assisted detoxification and includes pharmacological treatments (like methadone, naltrexone, or buprenorphine). These medications help to ease withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. In fact, the use of methadone and buprenorphine have been shown to reduce the risk of fatal relapse, improve quality of life, and decrease crime. When used with behavioral therapy, medically-assisted treatment (MAT) is very helpful in treating heroin addiction.

Behavioral therapies that can be effective in treating heroin addiction include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as well as contingency management. CBT is a type of therapy that helps patients to learn effective and healthy ways to manage stress and triggers. In addition, CBT helps to modify expectations and behaviors around drug use.

Contingency management is a type of therapy in which motivational incentives are used to promote staying drug-free. In addition to these types of therapies, support groups are also important for long-term sobriety. Many former heroin users find 12-Step groups like Narcotics Anonymous helpful once they leave clinical treatment.

As both the rate of addiction to heroin and death from overdose continue to grow at epidemic proportions, it’s vital to spread awareness and get help if you or a loved one are using heroin. In most cases, heroin use leads to full-blown addiction.

If you or a loved one need help with addiction to heroin, Caron can help. At Caron, we’ve helped thousands of people successfully and safely stop using heroin—we want to help you too. Caron is Real About Recovery and our evidence-based, comprehensive treatment programs produce real results. To learn more about Caron’s programs and how we can help, contact us today online or call us at 1-800-854-6023.

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