Heroin is a highly addictive opioid derived from morphine, a natural substance from certain types of poppy plants. Heroin is a depressant to the central nervous system, so it slows down a person’s brain function and can also affect someone’s breathing. Continuous heroin use can lead to physical dependence and tolerance to the drug’s effects. Both of these factors play a part in addiction.
There are predominantly two types of Heroin, black tar, and powder.
Black tar heroin is a sticky tar-like substance that is usually smoked. The majority of black tar heroin is created in Mexico. This type of Heroin has been around for over a century. It became more popular in the ’70s because it is cheaper and easier to make than powder heroin.
White or Brown powder heroin is a more complex substance to create but tends to be more potent. It also has the potential to be more dangerous. The powder form of Heroin is usually cut with other things. These additives are used to increase the profit margins for dealers and range from powdered milk to talc.
Unfortunately, there are other things put in Heroin that aren’t fillers. The most popular and deadly additive to Heroin is Fentanyl. This substance is a potent opioid that has been responsible for countless overdoses and deaths. With over 20% of Heroin containing Fentanyl, it is becoming even more dangerous to use.
The history of Heroin
According to Drug-Free World, Heroin was first produced in 1898 by Bayer Pharmaceutical and was used to treat tuberculosis and morphine addiction. The creation of Heroin was a part of a vicious cycle of problematic opioid use.
You see, during the 1850s, opium addiction was a problem. To handle this, many opium addicts were given morphine as a substitute. Unfortunately, this solution did not work because morphine was more addictive than people had anticipated. As morphine became problematic, Heroin became the “non-addictive” solution to treat addiction to morphine. This cycle continued when methadone was later created to treat heroin addiction.
Effects of Heroin
The euphoric feeling one gets from Heroin is a primary reason for its abuse. That being said, heroin use comes with many risks.
It is important to note that the effects of Heroin are dependent upon some of the following factors:
- The potency of the dose. (How pure the Heroin is and what additives a represent can cause different effects)
- The weight of the individual. (Larger individuals may need larger amounts of the drug to experience its effects.)
- The presence of other substances. (Prescription drugs and alcohol can create more side effects than just taking the drug on its own.)
The short-term effects of Heroin are as followed:
- Euphoric Feeling
- Pain relief
- Shallow Breathing
- Narrow pupils
- Loss of libido
As a person continues to use Heroin, they need more and more of the drug to prevent the body from going into withdrawal. Prolonged use of Heroin has detrimental health risks. This includes but is not limited to the following:
- Risk of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B & C
- Liver Disease
- Kidney Disease
- Miscarriage in women
- Collapsed Veins
- Heart issues
When an individual takes too much Heroin they are at risk of overdosing. When this happens, an individual’s, breathing slows or stops. This is a very high-risk situation that can lead to brain damage, heart attack, and death. The following are symptoms of a heroin overdose, and if you witness or experience these symptoms, emergency medical assistance is imperative.
- Loss of consciousness
- Very shallow breaths or absence of breathing
- Blue lips or fingertips
- Pinpoint pupils
- Muscle spasms
Those who use or are around habitual heroin users are encouraged to carry naloxone. Naloxone is a drug that can save someone who is in the middle of a heroin overdose. It reverses the effects of Heroin by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain from the impact of opioids. This can allow an individual to restore breathing function and consciousness.
The onset of heroin addiction can occur in different ways. Some individuals experiment with the drug and get hooked. Others have mental and emotional issues and purposely seek out the drug to deal with their problems. A recent trend occurring has been individuals moving from prescription opioids to Heroin.
This transition is happening in all walks of life. In the past, this pathway to Heroin was mainly followed by individuals who were using prescription opioids illegally, but that is no longer the case. With increased restrictions on prescription opioids, people are seeking Heroin to replace prescriptions that doctors are no longer willing to fill. There has been concern that doctors are cutting back opioids too much and too quickly. This phenomenon has led to an increase in individuals seeking out Heroin.
This concern was validated by a recent study done by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. This study illustrated that changes to how opioids were prescribed have led to the increased use of illegal opioids and heroin use. It is also reasonable to believe that many who were using prescription opiates illegally made the switch to Heroin as these prescription drugs became less available.
The euphoric effects of Heroin can get a person hooked on the drug, but it is what occurs during the prolonged use that makes a person so susceptible to addiction. Physical dependence and tolerance can start to occur after regular use of the drug. When this happens, it takes more of the drug to get the desired effect. According to the research article The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications of Treatment, there is a definitive reason for this phenomenon. Opioid tolerance happens because the opioid receptors become less responsive to stimulation, which means it takes more Heroin to create the effects of previous drug use. This tolerance increases over time, and eventually, an individual needs a larger quantity of drugs to get “high.” As the body builds a tolerance, it also becomes physically dependent on the drug.
Physical dependence is not entirely synonymous with addiction. Some individuals take drugs as prescribed and still have a physical dependence. That being said, anyone who is addicted most certainly has a physical dependence. This means that an individual is at risk of debilitating withdrawal symptoms if they discontinue their drug use.
Withdrawal from Heroin can be excruciating, and once someone is physically dependent on the drug, they can expect the following symptoms once they stop using.
- Watery eyes
- Restless legs
- Body aches
- Elevated heart rate
- Stomach Cramps
The above is not even a complete list of potential complications that came with heroin withdrawal.
The use of Heroin perpetuates itself and makes it harder to stop. As individuals continuously use Heroin, they need more and more of the drug to get the desired effect. This leads to physical dependence, which makes stopping extremely difficult. Addiction is almost inevitable as individuals ignore other aspects of their lives.
If someone has a heroin addiction, they should seek a long-term residential or inpatient program. These programs last anywhere from 30 – to 90 days or even longer in some cases. Heroin, like any opioid addiction, can be very difficult to overcome, and when someone does not leave their environment, it becomes even more challenging.
When someone becomes addicted, they tend to surround themselves with unhealthy individuals and have a routine conducive to drug use. Even if they want to stop, the life they have built for themselves makes this decision almost impossible. Removing an individual from these surroundings makes recovery easier to accomplish.
This is not to say that recovery is impossible if you do not seek inpatient treatment. It is just extremely difficult. One of the main reasons for this is drug withdrawal and cravings.
When a habitual heroin user decides to stop, the body goes through withdrawal. This uncomfortable withdrawal usually leads to intense cravings for Heroin to stop the uncomfortable feeling of withdrawing. If a person is not in an inpatient setting that can correctly handle these withdrawal symptoms and subsequent cravings, they are at risk of relapse.
Heroin withdrawal is agonizing, an individual can quite literally feel like they are dying, and in some cases, the withdrawal from Heroin can be fatal. The extreme symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal can lead an individual with the strongest convictions to get sober to seek out the drug.
While under the care of a long-term inpatient treatment center, an individual can get assistance in pushing through the withdrawal process. Most facilities handle withdrawal by ensuring an individual is getting proper sleep and nutrition while using medical intervention when necessary.
It is not uncommon for a facility to use maintenance drugs such as suboxone or methadone to help individuals through the withdrawal process. These drugs are opioids and help mitigate the physical discomforts that occur during heroin withdrawal. The use of these drugs differs from each facility, but they are a staple for most withdrawals. Obviously, the ultimate goal would be for the person to be completely off the drugs once they are done with the treatment.
Once an individual gets through the withdrawal process, the rehabilitation process truly begins. You see, just getting someone stable off drugs doesn’t mean they are going to remain sober. It is vital to handle the behavioural aspects of an individual.
Most individuals suffering from addiction have learned behaviours that perpetuate their substance abuse. If these go, unhandled someone is liable to slip back into drug use. The individual commonly creates these behaviours as a way of coping with life. In essence, there are problems besides drugs that someone must handle to truly recover from addiction.
Working with professionals, someone in recovery can figure out what they run into that causes them to use drugs. By identifying these problems, they can confront their lives once they are complete with treatment.
It is also essential for individuals to get aftercare after a long-term or inpatient treatment for heroin abuse. While in a center, a person can be sheltered and get used to having support around the clock. Once out, this is no longer the case, and it can be harder to deal with problems when they arise. Having a support network through an aftercare provider can ensure an individual remains sober.
- Eighty percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids.
- Over 20% of Heroin in Canada contains Fentanyl
Common Terminology Surrounding Heroin
|Opioid||Opioids are substances that can interact with the opioid receptors in the brain. They are primarily used to treat pain and are highly addictive. An opioid is a term that includes all substances, synthetic or natural.|
|Opiate||a substance that derives from opium. While opiates are still considered a type of opioid, it is distinct because it comes from natural sources. Opiates relate to opioids the same way squares relate to rectangles; all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates.|
|Physical Dependence||a physical condition caused by continuous use of a drug, in which sudden or gradual decrease in use causes unpleasant physical symptoms.|
|“Smack”, “Junk”, “Dope”||a few street names that could be used to talk about heroin.|
Ask a professional
Heroin is an opioid drug synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance taken from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Illicit heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or black sticky tar. Heroin can be injected, inhaled, snorted, sniffed, or smoked.
When heroin enters the brain, it is converted back into morphine, activating opioid receptors in the brain, specifically within the reward center. Dopamine is released, causing a sensation of pleasure and intense euphoria. Regular heroin use changes brain function, which creates tolerance, dependence, and addiction. It is the intense euphoria of heroin that causes addiction.
The rehabilitation process for heroin addiction begins with medical detox to manage the painful withdrawal symptoms. Following detox, the next phase of treatment should include long-term residential drug rehab. Holistic methods and behavioral therapies are the best approaches. In addition, aftercare support is critical as it helps every person maintain sobriety and stay connected to other sober people.
New and experienced heroin users risk overdose because it is impossible to know the purity of the heroin used. Street-grade heroin is often mixed with sugar, starch, or quinine. Heroin overdose can occur when the drug is snorted, injected, or smoked. Overdose causes slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma, and even death.