Heroin is a highly addictive drug, and its use is a serious problem. Heroin addiction is both the most abused and the most rapidly acting of the opiates. It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as the black sticky substance known on the streets as “black tar heroin.”
Recent studies suggest a shift from injecting heroin to snorting or smoking because of increased purity and the misconception that these forms of use will not lead to addiction.
Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is “cut” with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Street heroin can also be cut with strychnine or other poisons. Because heroin abusers do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at risk of overdose or death. Heroin also poses special problems because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases that can occur from sharing needles or other injection equipment.
Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder. Street names for heroin include “smack,” “H,” “skag,” and “junk.” Other names may refer to types of heroin produced in a specific geographical area, such as “Mexican black tar.”
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How is heroin used?
Heroin is usually injected, sniffed/snorted, or smoked. Typically, a heroin abuser may inject up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. Although smoking and sniffing heroin do not produce a “rush” as quickly or as intensely as intravenous injection, NIDA researchers have confirmed that all three forms of heroin administration are addictive.
What are the short-term effects of heroin use?
Soon after injection (or inhalation), heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier. In the brain, heroin is converted to morphine and binds rapidly to Opioid receptors. Abusers typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensation, a “rush.”
The intensity of the rush is a function of how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the natural Opioid receptors. Heroin is particularly addictive because it enters the brain so rapidly. With heroin, the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itching.
What are the long-term effects of heroin use?
Addiction, Infectious diseases, for example HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C. Collapsed veins, Bacterial infections, Abscesses, Infection of heart lining and valves, Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems.
One of the most detrimental long-term effects of heroin is addiction itself. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neuro-chemical and molecular changes in the brain. Heroin also produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are also powerful motivating factors for compulsive use and abuse.
As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin abusers gradually spend more and more time and energy obtaining and using the drug. Once they are addicted, the heroin abusers’ primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs. The drugs literally change their brains.
Physical dependence develops with higher doses of the drug. With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly. Withdrawal may occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold sweats with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and leg movements. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months. Heroin withdrawal is never fatal to otherwise healthy adults, but it can cause death to the fetus of a pregnant addict.
At some point during continuous heroin use, a person can become addicted to the drug. Sometimes addicted individuals will endure many of the withdrawal symptoms to reduce their tolerance for the drug so that they can again experience the rush.
Physical dependence and the emergence of withdrawal symptoms were once believed to be the key features of heroin addiction. We now know this may not be the case entirely, since craving and relapse can occur weeks and months after withdrawal symptoms are long gone. We also know that patients with chronic pain who need opiates to function (sometimes over extended periods) have few if any problems leaving opiates after their pain is resolved by other means. This may be because the patient in pain is simply seeking relief of pain and not the rush sought by the addict.
How does heroin abuse affect pregnant women?
Heroin abuse can cause serious complications during pregnancy, including miscarriage and premature delivery. Children born to addicted mothers are at greater risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), as well. Pregnant women should not be detoxified from opiates because of the increased risk of spontaneous abortion or premature delivery; rather, treatment with methadone is strongly advised. Although infants born to mothers taking prescribed methadone may show signs of physical dependence, they can be treated easily and safely in the nursery. Research has demonstrated also that the effects of inutero exposure to methadone are relatively benign.
Why are heroin users at special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?
Because many heroin addicts often share needles and other injection equipment, they are at special risk of contracting HIV and other infectious diseases.
Infection of injection drug users with HIV is spread primarily through reuse of contaminated syringes and needles or other paraphernalia by more than one person, as well as through unprotected sexual intercourse with HIV-infected individuals. For nearly one-third of Americans infected with HIV, injection drug use is a risk factor. In fact, drug abuse is the fastest growing vector for the spread of HIV in the nation.
NIDA-funded research has found that drug abusers can change the behaviors that put them at risk for contracting HIV, through drug abuse treatment, prevention, and community-based outreach programmes. They can eliminate drug use, drug-related risk behaviors such as needle sharing, unsafe sexual practices and, in turn, the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Drug abuse prevention and treatment are highly effective in preventing the spread of HIV.
What are the symptoms of heroin withdrawal?
Regardless of dosage, these reactions may appear: Convulsions, Increased heart rate, Abnormal heartbeat, Heart attack, Sudden, sharp blood pressure increase, Stroke, Extreme depression, Suicidal behavior.
As withdrawal progresses, elevations in blood pressure, pulse, respiratory rate and temperature occur. Symptoms of overdose — which may result in death — include shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions and coma.
Are there any other problems that can occur from heroin addiction?
Heroin can cause feelings of depression, which may last for weeks. Attempts to stop using heroin can fail simply because the withdrawal can be overwhelming, causing the addict to use more heroin in an attempt to overcome these symptoms. This overpowering addiction can cause the addict to do anything to get heroin.