What is heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine, extracted from opium’s poppy seed pod grown in Southeast, Mexico, and Columbia.  Heroin comes in different forms: white and brown powders, black sticky substance. Other common street names for heroin are big H, horse, hell dust, smack. Heroin is a semi-synthetic, highly addictive opioid, that produces intense sensations of euphoria. Heroin has been illegal in the US since 1924.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,  the use of heroin had been on the rise in recent years. In 2017 nearly 494,000 people in the US reported using heroin (as early as twelve years old).  Heroin-related overdose and death have increased due to a rising use of the opioid. In 2017 over 15,000 Americans died from heroin overdoses. From 2010 to 2017 heroin-related overdose death increased by five times.

How is heroin used?

People who use heroin often have drug injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked. Others mix heroin with other illicit drugs like crack cocaine. This process of mixing two drugs called speedballing. Changes in the brain function cause the user to adapt to drug effects, and often needing to use higher dosages to achieve the same sensations. It also makes it harder to stop using opioid.

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What are the effects of heroin?

Heroin tends to penetrate the brain quickly. and bind to opioid receptors on cells targeting the reward system, that controls emotions, feelings, pain, and pleasures.

Short-term effects

Individuals using heroin often experience a surge of pleasure, euphoria, associated with other commonly known effects, involving:

  • being in and out of consciousness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dry mouth
  • persistent itching
  • impaired mental condition
  • heaviness in arms and legs
  • skin flushing
  • slow heart rate
  • shallow breathing

Long-term effects

When heroin is used for a long period combined with increased dosages, people may develop the following effects:

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  • insomnia
  • inflamed and damaged nose tissue
  • collapsed veins
  • infected heart lining and valves
  • skin infections and abscesses
  • stomack cramping
  • liver and kidney problems
  • pulmonary complications
  • depression and other mental disorders
  • sexual disfunction
  • irregular periods
  • constipation
  • high risks for contracting HIV and Hepatitis C and B
  • permanent brain damage

In more severe cases, the individual who abuses heroin may overdose and die. An overdose from heroin takes place when a person uses large quantities of this opioid to cause a life-threatening response or even death.

During heroin overdose, many people experience slow breathing or completely stop breathing. Lack of oxygen flowing to the brain may cause a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia may cause irreparable conditions, including coma and permanent brain damage.

What are the withdrawal symptoms of heroin addiction?

People who use heroin repeatedly develop tolerance, which requires they use larger quantities of the drug and more frequently to receive the desirable effect.  People who are addicted to heroin, and attempt to stop using the drug suddenly,  may encounter withdrawal symptoms that can appear soon after the opioid is taken:

  • restlessness
  • severe muscle pains
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes
  • uncontrollable leg movement
  • insomnia
  • severe cravings
  • impaired decision making
  • mood swings
  • agitation

Is there a treatment for heroin addiction?

A variety of treatments are available to treat heroin addiction, which includes medical interventions with the use of medications and behavioral therapy. A combination of both treatment options has had proven results and found to be the most effective. Each evidence-based treatment is designed around personal needs for each patient. A recovery specialist will identify those needs before providing a detailed and comprehensive treatment plan.

Medications can assist with weaning a person off drugs, by utilizing their effects of binding to the same opioids receptors in the brain as heroin and reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The next critical step is to undergo a full detoxification process, to rid the body of harmful toxins. This procedure is usually performed in a medical setting under the supervision of a medical professional.

Behavioral therapy what comes next, after the detox.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy applied to treat heroin addiction, and it has been very successful.  The main target of CBT is to alter patient’s perceptions about drug use, behaviors and help manage triggers and cravings. Family support is critical during the recovery process. Support groups and individual counseling outside of rehab center,  may help a recovering addict to maintain a drug-free life, and find the necessary support to avoid relapse.