Many illicit drugs are highly addictive, and heroin is one of them. Heroin is a type of an opiate drug that produces strong effects in the brain’s reward system. Knowing how the brain works helps us understand why heroin is so addictive. The limbic system is a pathway in the brain that is responsible for producing feelings of pleasure and ease. The brain chemicals and receptors respond to each other and activate these pathways.
In a healthy person, the reward system may be activated through a variety of activities, such as earning a promotion, winning a game, or being in a relationship. Heroin affects this system by stimulating the release of dopamine in the brain in highly unnatural ways. The brain becomes accustomed to this dopamine release and the strong sense of pleasure it produces, so it signals people to keep using the drug to produce the same results.
Heroin Abuse Statistics:
The following are 2016 statistics related to heroin use:
- A total of 948,000 Americans used heroin in 2016.
- Since 2007, there has been a growing trend for heroin use.
- Teenagers and young adults from eighteen to twenty-five years old are experiences increases in heroin use.
- The amount of first-time heroin users was double in 2016 (170,000 new users) compared to the number of first-time users in 2009 (90,000 new users).
- People diagnosed with heroin use disorder increased from 214,000 in 2002 to 626,000 in 2016.
- Heroin use is now predominantly seen in suburban and rural communities.
- Alongside prescription opioids, heroin is considered one of the top concerns relating to drug abuse in the United States.
- Children and teens aged twelve to seventeen have experienced declines in heroin use, with few members of that population reporting heroin use in the past year.
- 15,500 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses in 2016.
- In 2016, heroin-related overdoses most affected males from the ages of twenty-five to forty-four, with a 17 percent increase from 2015.
How Long Does Heroin Last?
Introducing heroin into the body produces rapid effects that may last for hours. The speed of the effects may depend on the method of administration. Heroin is ingested by snorting, smoking, or injecting. It usually comes in the form of white or brownish powder that is mixed with ingredients such as milk, sugar, or quinine.
Another variety of heroin is black tar heroin. Compared to other forms of heroin, black tar heroin tends to be more potent and offer a longer lasting high. It is usually smoked or injected.
The popularity of heroin as an illicit substance is largely due to its intense effects. It may create a heightened and strong state of euphoria, which is associated with a chemical component called 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) and morphine in the brain. The 6-MAM is responsible for the rapid absorption of the drug in the body.
In the United States, heroin is not considered a medically useful drug. Other areas, such as the United Kingdom, use heroin medically for acute pain. The drugs may be used intravenously by people who are suffering from physical trauma, myocardial infarction, post-surgery pain, or chronic pain.
What Does Heroin Look Like?
Physically, heroin comes in many forms. It is a subsynthetic product that is a crude version of diamorphine. When purified, it comes in a white powder form. Some heroin variants come in a brownish powder form and have impurities. Black tar heroin is a sticky, dark substance that can be injected intravenously or smoked.
On a chemical level, heroin has a molecular structure of C21H23NO5 . The drug is produced through the acetylation of crude morphine, hence its other name, acetomorphine.
What Are Signs of Heroin Use?
Addiction to heroin may be spotted if you are aware of its signs. Like other drugs, there is a risk of dependency to heroin if people do not seek treatment immediately. Some signs that you or your loved one may be addicted to heroin include:
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Alternatively, a person may be considered a functional drug addict without showing signs of abuse. This condition may not last very long if he or she uses heroin continually.
What Are Physical Symptoms of Heroin Use?
If you or your loved one is using heroin, here are some possible physical signs:
- Relief from pain and anxiety: People often use heroin to eradicate symptoms of pain and anxiety. They may feel an immediate sense of relief and ease after taking the drug.
- Flushing of the skin: One physical sign of using heroin is a flushing of the skin. You may notice a reddish or pinkish color of the cheeks as well as the arms and legs.
- Elevated body temperature: A person may experience a feverish temperature as an immediate effect of using heroin.
- Nausea and vomiting: First-time or new users may experience nausea and vomiting after taking a potent dose of the drug.
- Itching: Heroin blocks pain receptors. People using the drug may feel itchy or numb.
What Are Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use?
Due to its highly addictive nature and potency, the continued use heroin may produce debilitating long-term effects. Persistent heroin users may experience:
- Deterioration of the brain’s white matter: The brain consists of white matter, which is nerve fibers known as axons. Continued heroin use may affect the brain’s neural capacity, making it difficult for people to remember things, regulate their emotions, or perform tasks that they initially were able to perform.
- Withdrawal symptoms: Gradual tolerance to the drug makes it difficult for heroin users to stay with the same dosage. In lower dosages, people may experience withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, loss of focus, restlessness, agitation, and paranoia.
- Heart and respiratory problems: Heroin’s short-term effects include the slowed heartbeats and breathing. Regular heroin users may experience tachycardia, which is a rapid heartbeat. Drug use may also produce collapsed lungs and poor respiratory function.
People with heroin addiction may experience an overdose. Overdose depends on a person’s weight, bodily tolerance, and previous experience with the drug. Typically, a 170-pound person who uses heroin may experience overdose at around 75mg up to 350 mg, depending on their tolerance and previous use.
Accidental overdoses may happen when street drug versions of heroin vary in their purity. The purity may differ from 11 percent to 72 percent, which may make a heroin overdose highly likely. It is also possible to overdose when a person uses heroin after a period of abstaining from the drug. Some signs of drug overdose may include:
- Slow or irregular heartbeat
- Loss of consciousness
- Weak pulse
- Dry mouth
- Discoloration of the tongue
- Bluish color of skin and nails
- Muscle spasms
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The Dangers of Heroin
For some, heroin is a recreational drug. Although people use this substance to experience feelings of pleasure, using heroin may be deadly. There are many dangers associated with heroin:
Danger to one’s brain: People under the influence of heroin may experience brain damage with continued use. A heroin addict may experience symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Danger to one’s body: Drug abuse may produce several health complications. As individuals become accustomed to using heroin, they may neglect nutrition, physical activity, and sleep. A lack of good health habits may cause problems such as malnutrition, cardiovascular weakness, skin and teeth problems, as well as diseases related to nutritional deficiencies.
Danger to one’s personal and social life: Abusing heroin and other drugs may also create emotional and social changes. Heroin abuse may take over a person’s life. It may make people lose interest in building relationships, seeking employment, or participating in activities that they once enjoyed. This may create feelings of isolation, which may lead to a cycle of depression and continued drug use.
Heroin and Other Drugs
Heroin is potent drug on its own, but some people abuse it with other substances. This practice is known by other names, including dual addiction, multiple addiction, polydrug abuse, and polysubstance abuse. Here are some effects of abusing heroin with other drugs:
- Heroin with alcohol: Heroin slows respiratory and circulatory processes. Alcohol is also a depressant, which means that it may slow mental and bodily processes. When combined, heroin and alcohol may be lethal because they may double the toxicity of the substances.
- Heroin with cocaine: Using of heroin and cocaine together is sometimes known colloquially as speedballing. People undergo this process to increase feelings of euphoria and to balance the effects of both drugs. Heroin is a depressant while cocaine is a stimulant. Speedballing is a dangerous process. A person may accidentally take higher dosages of both drugs to achieve desired effects, leading to overdose.
- Heroin with methamphetamine (meth): People combine heroin and methamphetamine (meth) for the same reasons that people combine heroin with cocaine. Using meth and heroin may overwork the body because the drugs’ effects last for different duration. Combining the drugs may cause irregular heartbeats, increased blood pressure, or ruptures of the blood vessels.
Recognizing a Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction is intense. One dose may prompt someone to abuse the drug. As a result, there are telltale signs that someone may be using heroin:
- Frequent desire to be alone: There is often shame associated with the use of heroin. People abusing it may look for ways to be alone, isolate themselves in their homes, and want more privacy because they feel ashamed or are consumed by their habits.
- Drug paraphernalia in the trash and throughout the home: A person using drugs will dispose the things he or she uses to administer heroin and other drugs. Such items may include needles, spoons, tin foil, blades, pipes, lighters, and rubber tubing that may be seen in wastebaskets, trash bags, and other places.
- Loss of money: Drug use may hurt people’s finances since they may spend all their money on heroin and lose jobs due to their addictions. They might ask for money, steal money from others, or sell things in exchange to pay for their addictions.
- Use of deodorizers, colognes, and perfumes: Heroin and heroin use produce specific odors. Some people may use deodorizers and other fragrances to mask the odors or others may smell it on them or in their homes.
Heroin addiction treatment
If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, know that you are not alone. Many people seek treatment to help recover from drug addiction. Here are some of the common processes associated with heroin addiction treatment:
Detoxification (detox) is the first step to heroin treatment. This process involves medically assisted detoxifying procedures that remove residual heroin from the body. Detox helps reduce the effects of heroin withdrawal.
Can heroin withdrawal kill you?
In some instances, yes. This is why self-detox may not be advisable, especially for people who are long-term users. It is recommended to consult professionals for heroin addiction treatment.
After the heroin detox process, individuals may start with rehabilitation programs that may be inpatient (residential) or outpatient (at home). Depending on the severity of the condition, people may work with professionals to create nutritional plans, foster healthy habits, and find recreational activities to incorporate into their changing lifestyles.
Heroin drug abuse recovery is challenging to go through alone. There are many support groups that individuals may attend to receive accountability, mentorship, and encouragement from people who are on the same journey of addiction recovery.
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.
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