Heroin, sometimes known as smack, is the most commonly abused opioid. It’s a fast-acting, highly addictive drug. Heroin is processed from morphine, a natural extract from the seed pods of the poppy plant. Some opioids are used in the treatment of certain medical conditions such as pain, but heroin is illegal and is of no medical value.
Heroin is a “downer,” meaning it causes relaxation and euphoria. Its effects are due to its action in the brain opioid receptors, the natural binding sites for endorphins (the body’s natural pain relievers). The drug blocks pain signals to the brain, causing feelings of euphoria and well-being.
Heroin is sold as a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance commonly referred to as “black tar.” It’s usually mixed (cut) with other substances such as milk powder, starch and sugar. Sometimes it’s cut with strychnine, a substance frequently used as a pesticide or in other poisons. Users of heroin often don’t know the purity of the drug when they purchase it, which increases the risk of overdosing and may even cause death.
Modes of Heroin Use
Heroin is often injected intravenously. Other methods of use include smoking, snorting (direct inhalation through the nose) and inhalation through glass pipes. When the drug is injected, it takes effect very fast and causes a high of the greatest intensity. However, when smoked or snorted, it takes effect after about 10 to 15 minutes.
Alarming Facts and Statistics Concerning Heroin Use
The number of people who abused heroin in the United States between 2005 and 2012 almost doubled, going from 380,000 to 670,000. Heroin is dangerous due to its addictiveness and because it poses a higher risk of overdosing. The danger is compounded because users have no control over the purity of the drug and its possible contamination with other substances.
In 2010, there were 2,789 fatalities resulting from heroin overdoses. This figure increased by over 50 percent compared to the early 2000s. Heroin addiction was exclusively an urban problem; yet now, it’s spreading to the suburbs and small towns. In 2012, 670,000 people reported using heroin in the past year, and adults aged 18 to 25 demonstrated the greatest increase in this figure. About 208,000 people use heroin habitually. There are approximately 84,000 emergency room visits every year. Fourteen percent of drug-related emergency room visits involve heroin.
Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
The following are symptoms that can be observed during and after someone consumes heroin:
• Shortness of breath
• Dry mouth
• Constricted pupils
• Sudden behavioral changes
• Drooping appearance
• Cycles between hyper-attentiveness and absent-mindedness
More specific signs of heroin abuse include the paraphernalia related to the drug. They include:
• Burnt silver spoons
• Needles and syringes without medicinal use
• Aluminum foil or similar substances with burn marks
• Missing shoe laces (used to tie a limb before injection)
• Water pipes or other kinds of pipes
• Small plastic bags with white contents
Using heroin is always unsafe for one’s health and is always accompanied by several risks.
The Great Risks of Using Heroin
The side effects of heroin addiction and abuse vary as the disease progresses. After consuming the drug, it causes a “rush” (feelings of euphoria) followed by dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin and other extreme physical feelings. These initial feelings can be followed by vomiting, nausea and severe itching.
The short-term physical effects of heroin abuse include:
• Abnormal breathing
• Clouded mental activity
• Decreased pain from emotional or physical conditions
• Itchiness leading to compulsive scratching
The dependence and abuse of heroin may produce extreme medical effects that can cause death directly or indirectly.
The following are long-term effects of abusing heroin:
• Heart disease, which includes the infection of valves and the heart lining
• Infections including HIV and hepatitis B and C
• Chronic pneumonia and other pulmonary diseases
• Bacterial infections
• Tissue death and blood clots caused by collapsed veins and impurities contained in the drug
• Liver disease
• Arthritis and other rheumatic problems
When a heroin abuser tries to cease from taking the drug, there are several adverse reactions that often occur. These are known as withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
The following are withdrawal symptoms that often accompany the cessation of heroin use:
• Intense drug craving
• Profuse sweating
• Nausea and vomiting
• Severe bone and muscle aches
• Feelings of heaviness
• Intense limb cramping
• Cold sweats
• Running nose
Effective Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction
There are several methods of treatment available for heroin abusers, some of which include behavioral therapy and medications. All of such treatment options are effective in helping people to stop using heroin and become stable, productive members of society. The medications available to assist during heroin withdrawal include:
• Buprenorphine and methadone. These medications bind to the same cell receptors to which heroin binds, but they bind more weakly than heroin. They’re intended to help the user wean from the drug and reduce the craving.
• Naltrexone. This one blocks the opioid receptors and prevents the drug from taking effect in the user’s body.
• Naloxone. This drug is sometimes used as an emergency treatment to counteract the impact of heroin overdose.
Medications for heroin serve the purpose of suppressing the craving for the drug, reestablishing normal brain functions and preventing the possibility of relapse to the drug.
Behavioral treatments for heroin include:
• Cognitive behavioral therapy. This prevents the possibility of the patient ever desiring to abuse the drug.
• Multidimensional family therapy. This helps patients and their families know how to deal with any eventualities that may occur in the recovering addict’s life, and also helps family members understand and support the patent’s efforts in quitting the drug.
• Motivational interviewing. This is a technique that takes advantage of the patient’s decision to abstain from drugs.
• Motivational incentives. MI is achieved by reinforcing the belief systems of patients, reminding them that they can quit the drug and remain clean.
Heroin is highly addictive and extremely harmful to your health. If you or your loved one is a victim of heroin abuse, call the hotline number at 800-447-9081, where you can talk to professionals who can help you with heroin and any other drug-related issues.