Heroin is an opiate drug that packs a powerful punch. A staggering 4.8 million people have used heroin at one point in their life. Between the ages of 12 and 49, the average user was 28. White or brownish in color, heroin can also be a sticky substance known as “black tar heroin.” The powdered form is commonly mixed with other drugs or even food products, including starch, sugar, or powdered milk.
Many users admit they first started abusing prescription opioids before using heroin. This is because many heroin users used to get a similar high with an opioid pain reliever, but because of the cost and the difficulty to access these drugs, they switched to heroin. The risk of overdose isn’t the only problem. Heroin users experience a far higher risk for diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
What Does Heroin Do?
As heroin races to the brain, it transforms to morphine, which allows it to more readily and quickly bind to opioid receptors. Due to this, a person feels immediate and immense pleasure, or a “rush,” a feeling which varies depending on the amount of drug used. The euphoria of heroin use is often paired with other physical symptoms or risks, including:
- Dry mouth
- Flushed skin
- Decreased pain
- A weighted feeling in the extremities
- Intense itching
Once the feelings that are listed above wane, a person may feel intensely sleepy and experience impaired cognitive function. Heroin then causes a person’s heart and breathing functions to slow down—sometimes to a life-threatening point. This slowed breathing, or respiratory depression, can be followed up by coma or overdose, leading to permanent brain damage, or even death.
Between 2000 and 2013 death rates due to heroin increased. This is due in part to the high purity of the heroin causing more users to have accidental overdoses. Due to this higher purity, and also the risk of other drugs being cut into the heroin, overdose is becoming more of a concern. Users that leave behind prescription opioids that had a set dosage and chemical composition may not be able to control the amount they use in a way they are accustomed to.
When someone has an overdose, they experience clammy skin, blue tinged lips and fingernails, slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma, and oftentimes death. If you witness any of these symptoms when heroin is present or suspected, seek medical attention immediately. Time matters.
Addiction And How Heroin Affects Your Brain
When a user repeatedly uses heroin, it actually changes the physical form of your brain, going so far as to even alter the brain’s physiology. NIDA confirms this, noting that research has shown a breaking down of the brain’s white matter. This has dangerous implications on your cognitive ability, as it may hinder a person’s capability of making a decision, managing their behavior, or reacting to stress.
Heroin is highly addictive and creates an intense physical dependence. When increasing amounts of the drug are needed to get the same effects, a tolerance then comes into play. With repetitive heroin use, this results in addiction. In whatever way a user puts it into their system, this drug quickly does its work to hook the user. Once addicted, the primary goal in the user’s life is to find another fix.
An addiction is also evident if a person goes into withdrawal. As the body adjusts to the drug, withdrawal symptoms happen if the usage is cut back abruptly.
Some heroin withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle and bone pain
- Restlessness and agitation
- Cold flashes with goose bumps
- Runny nose and eyes
- Leg movements
Intense withdrawal symptoms peak between 24-48 hours, and typically tone down after a week. Some users have withdrawal signs for several months. We highly recommend that you never seek to do this on your own, instead look to a program that offers a medical detox to help you safely ease these uncomfortable symptoms.
Complications Of Chronic Heroin Use
Chronic heroin users may encounter numerous medical issues, ranging from minor to serious. On the minor end, a person may find that they have trouble sleeping or using the bathroom (constipation). As a result of poor health and the respiratory depression, various lung complications come into play, including pneumonia and tuberculosis. Heroin may alter your hormonal balance. A man will often go through sexual dysfunction, while a woman’s menstrual cycle will many times become irregular. For those who snort heroin, this can damage the delicate mucosal tissues in the nose or create a hole in the septum (the tissue that separates the nasal passages).
As with most drug abuse, your brain is vastly impacted, especially your mental and emotional state. Mental disorders might flare up, specifically, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes, depression or antisocial personality disorder. If a person has a preexisting mental health disorder, drug use can exacerbate this or even set the stage for new ones.
Injection drug users face specific risks. Repeated injections can damage a user’s circulatory system, causing scarring or collapsed veins, vascular bacterial infections that may permeate the heart valves, and abscesses or infection of other soft-tissues.
As we’ve noted above, heroin often contains additives, which may not dissolve properly. This can clog the blood vessels which lead to critical organ systems, such as your liver, kidneys, lungs, or brain. As a result, certain cellular regions within these organs may become infected or even die. Chronic heroin use takes its toll on your immune system, specifically that your body harshly reacts to these additional substances in the heroin, which can cause rheumatologic complications, including arthritis.
Risk Of Infectious Disease
The risk of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious agents skyrocket when someone is using heroin. When people inject drugs, they don’t always use clean needles. When sharing injection equipment, especially syringes, severe consequences can take place. These users are at a greater risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis C and B, with the later accounting for 20% of total infections in the United States. This is even more frightening when you consider an abuser of heroin can pass HIV over to their sexual partner or even their child at birth.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers a sobering fact, “Injection drug users (IDUs) are the highest-risk group for acquiring hepatitis C (HCV) infection and continue to drive the escalating HCV epidemic.” Those who inject may continue to spread the HCV epidemic, NIDA elaborates, stating that “Each IDU infected with HCV is likely to infect 20 other people.” NIDA continues to tell us that in 2010, 53% of new HCV infections were among injection drug users.
It is important to remember that these risks exist for individuals that choose to administer heroin in other ways. Even individuals that smoke or snort the drug experience a greater risk of contracting these diseases. When using heroin, many users will engage in unsafe sexual practices, exposing them to these diseases still. Further compounding this problem, is that people that are addicted to heroin may trade sex for money or drugs, thus increasing their risk even more.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse recognizes that treating the many demands of a heroin addiction can be a complicated process, asserting that “Drug use, viral hepatitis and other infectious diseases, mental illnesses, social dysfunctions, and stigma are often co-occurring conditions that affect one another, creating more complex health challenges that require comprehensive treatment plans tailored to meet all of a patient’s needs.”
Despite this, treatment is possible. Severe addictions, as are consistent with heroin, typically require inpatient drug rehab. Within this residential setting you will likely encounter a medical detox, supported by medication-assisted treatments. These medications may either be Suboxone or methadone. Various therapeutic methods may assist you in overcoming your drug use and building better coping skills. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are two such examples. Being that many heroin users may experience mental health disorders, treatment for co-occurring disorders may also be integrated. Beyond this, you may receive extensive guidance in relapse prevention, which is critical for heroin users.
Find A Better Path Today
If you or a loved one is suffering from the side effects of heroin use, contact us today for even more vital information. Prevention, knowledge, and understanding is needed to help prevent the spread of these diseases and health risks. DrugRehab.org can help you find a better direction. Contact us today.
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MedlinePlus - Opiate and opioid withdrawal
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Opioids
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use?
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the long-term effects of heroin use?
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?