What is Heroin?
Heroin is a potent opioid drug that is derived from morphine, a naturally occurring opiate that is taken from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. While these plants are native to Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia, heroin can be found all across the United States.
Heroin usually comes in the form of a white or brown powder. It may also be sold in the form of a sticky substance called “black tar heroin.” Popular street names for heroin include:
- White horse
- Brown sugar
Heroin can be smoked, snorted, or injected. Many people also mix it with meth, cocaine, or crack cocaine – a practice referred to as “speedballing.” It is considered one of the most addictive illegal drugs and holds no medicinal use. Regardless, heroin overdoses have been a major public health concern over the last two decades.
Heroin Side Effects
Heroin works in ways similar to other naturally occurring opioids like morphine. It binds to opioid receptors in the brain and affects the way the body responds to pain. The drug directly affects areas of the brain responsible for pain, pleasure, heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.
Seconds to minutes after using heroin, the short-term effects will set in. These include:
- Constricted pupils
- Warmth or flushing of the skin
- Nausea or vomiting
- Severe itching
- Poor mental functioning
- Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- “Nodding” or switching back and forth from consciousness to unconsciousness
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 4-6% of people who abuse prescription drugs end up switching to heroin. And, nearly 80% of heroin users initially misused prescription opioids before transitioning to heroin. As a result, researchers have come to the conclusion that prescription opioid abuse is a major contributing factor to heroin abuse.
Despite how dangerous heroin abuse is, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that in 2016, nearly 950,000 Americans used heroin in the past year. This number has been on the rise since 2006. Increasing rates of heroin abuse in the United States have become so concerning that public health officials have declared the opioid crisis a National Emergency.
According to the CDC, over 28% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2019 involved heroin. As a highly potent opioid, it is easy to overdose on heroin by itself when it is smoked, snorted, or injected. However, heroin is often laced with fentanyl, making the drug even more potent and easy to overdose on. People also often mix heroin with other opioids, benzodiazepines, or alcohol – all of which can increase the risk of overdose.
Symptoms of heroin overdose include:
- Nodding in and out of consciousness
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Pinpoint pupils
- Bluish-colored nails, fingers, or lips
- Slurred speech
- Unresponsive to stimuli
- Limp body
A heroin overdose causes breathing to slow down or stop which decreases the amount of oxygen that can reach the brain. This leads to hypoxia, a condition characterized by a lack of oxygen to the brain and body. Hypoxia can have short-term and permanent effects on the central nervous system, including brain damage.
Heroin overdose is almost always treated using Narcan (naloxone), an opioid reversal medication that can be sprayed into each nostril or injected into the body. Narcan helps block the effects of opioids and restore breathing to people who have overdosed. If administered quickly after a person overdoses, this medication is highly effective.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse
When people develop a tolerance to heroin, they may start using the drug in higher doses or in other ways to produce stronger effects. This means people who snort or smoke the drug often graduate to injecting it. Injection not only increases the risk of overdose, but it also increases the risk of:
- Viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B
- Bacterial skin infections
- Blood infections
- Heart lining and valve infections
- Abscesses on the skin
- Collapsed veins
- Liver and kidney disease
- Lung complications, including pneumonia
- Mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder
- Sexual dysfunction
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Stomach cramping
The more often a person uses heroin, the more likely his or her body is to get dependent on it. People who are dependent on heroin may experience flu-like withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly stop taking the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as 4 hours after taking the last dose and can last for up to a week. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Muscle and bone pain
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Cold chills
- Restless legs
Like other opioids, heroin is extremely addictive. Some people can get psychologically hooked after just one or two uses. Others develop a tolerance over the course of one or two weeks. Tolerance simply means users begin needing to take higher doses or more frequent doses to produce the effects they desire.
Tolerance is only one indication of heroin addiction. Other signs and symptoms include:
- Track marks on the arms, legs, hands, feet, or neck
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using heroin
- Lying to friends and family about substance abuse
- Having trouble maintaining employment, relationships, grades, or other responsibilities
- Acting as though one is under the influence of opioids on a regular basis
- Getting into legal trouble as a result of one’s drug use
Those who become addicted to heroin must endure withdrawal symptoms when they stop using. These flu-like symptoms can be so aggravating that some users continue using heroin simply to avoid getting sick. The good news is that treatment medications and therapeutic services can help people recover.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
There are many existing treatments available for heroin abuse and addiction. The gold standard for heroin treatment involves medically-assisted treatment (MAT), individualized therapy, and long-term peer support.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
There are FDA-approved opioid treatment medications available to help patients with the heroin detox and recovery process. Beginning with detox, patients may be prescribed methadone, buprenorphine, or Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone). These medications target opioid receptors in the brain and help reduce the intensity and duration of withdrawal.
Since these medications can also help ward off drug cravings, they may be used throughout the treatment process and for several months or years of a person’s recovery. When combined with behavioral therapies and peer support, MAT programs can help reduce relapse rates and overdose rates. They also help improve patients’ ability to maintain employment and complete treatment fully.
Counseling and Therapy
MAT treatment medications should always be used in combination with behavioral therapy and individualized counseling. Common therapies used to treat heroin addiction include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Contingency management (CM)
- Family therapy
- Relapse prevention therapy
- Holistic therapy
Heroin rehab is usually provided on an inpatient basis due to the high risk of relapse among heroin users. All treatment plans should be customized to meet each patient’s unique needs.
Aftercare and Peer Support
Heroin is one of the most difficult drugs to stop using, but that doesn’t mean recovery is impossible. One of the best ways to stay sober is to participate in long-term aftercare and build a network of sober support.
Types of aftercare and support programs that may help recovering heroin users include:
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Heroin Anonymous (HA)
- SMART Recovery
- Alumni groups
- Church organizations
- Sober living homes
It is important to recognize that heroin addiction is a chronic disease that often requires long-term care. It cannot be cured with a 30-day stay at a rehab facility. However, rehab can introduce patients to the tools and resources they need to stay sober.
Find Heroin Rehab in Massachusetts Today
Heroin addiction is brutal and can completely destroy the lives of those suffering from it and the people who love him or her. Here at Elevate Recovery Center, our team of addiction professionals has decades of combined hands-on experience with helping heroin users begin a new way of life. To learn more about our opioid rehab programs or to find help for a loved one, pick up the phone and call today.