Heroin is a natural opiate derived from the seed pods of the poppy plant. In history, heroin was used for its medicinal properties as a pain reliever, and is still in use in some countries for the same reason. However, in modern times, this drug is known as one of the most commonly abused illicit drugs in the world, with as many as 9.2 million people who seek the drug for its euphoric effects. Heroin produces such a feel-good feeling in the brain, it is not uncommon for first-time users to become addicted. Of the people that try heroin, nearly one out of every four will become addicted.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 600,000 people reported using heroin in 2012, but these numbers are estimated to be much higher.
What Does Heroin Look Like?
Because the purity, quality, and source of heroin can vary, not all heroin looks the same. In fact, heroin can be subdivided into several different grades and can either be snorted, smoked, or injected intravenously. Primarily, heroin is found in either a pure white powder form, as a black sticky tar-like substance, or in a darker colored tan or black powder. The appearance of heroin can greatly depend on how it is processed by a dealer as well.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
Heroin creates a feeling of euphoria because it causes the brain to automatically produce feel-good chemicals in the mind and body. This euphoric feeling is part of what draws many heroin abusers to the drug initially. Some seek heroin for pain-relief as well, especially if they’ve already formed an addiction to opiate-based painkillers.
A few of the most noteworthy signs and symptoms of heroin abuse include:
- euphoric attitude; being overly content
- drowsiness, changes in sleep patterns, or nodding off at abnormal times
- lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern in everyday situations and relationships
- nausea, weight loss, or changes in appetite
In addition to physical and psychological changes, heroin dependents become so persistent about feeding their habit that they will go to great lengths to get the drugs. This often leads to spending insane amounts of money on a daily basis as the abuser needs more of the drug to feel okay. Therefore, heroin abusers often lose their physical possessions, go through their money quickly, and may even borrow and steal to get what they need.
Dangers And Effects Of Heroin Addiction
Heroin is often assumed to be a safer alternative to other more potent drugs because it is derived from a natural substance. However, this is far from the case. Pure heroin is uncommon, as most dealers cut the drug with other substances, like synthetic opiates and opioids.
In recent years, heroin has been cut with powerful opioid painkillers like Fentanyl, creating a form of heroin that is more potent, and more likely to cause an overdose. Because you never know the dosage amount or which drugs are in a dose of heroin, each time you take heroin you face an increased risk of taking far more than you are used to.
A few signs of a heroin overdose include:
- extremely pinpointed pupils
- slowed heart rate and low blood pressure
- shallow breathing or delayed respiratory response
- lethargy and extreme drowsiness
- comatose state or unresponsiveness
Because heroin affects the central nervous system, it can interact with almost all of the primary bodily functions. If an overdose of heroin is suspected, immediate medical attention is necessary. Without proper attention and intervention, death is a real possibility.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms & Detox
After prolonged heroin abuse, users build a tolerance to the drug and need more and more to achieve the same or similar effects as when they first started using. This often leads to a person taking large quantities of the drug on a daily basis. Overuse causes the body and brain to believe it must have the heroin in order to function properly. Therefore, when the drug is taken away, a user slips into a period of withdrawal that can be incredibly hard to overcome alone.
Symptoms Of Heroin Withdrawal
Withdrawal from heroin can have differing effects for each individual according to the severity of the addiction, the duration of heroin abuse, and how much heroin the person is used to taking.
Some of the most common symptoms experienced during heroin withdrawal include:
- nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite
- sweating, chills, or fever
- tremors, shakes, and convulsions in severe cases
- overall weakness, lack energy, and fatigue
- severe anxiety, depression, delirium, irritability, and agitation
- a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing
- chattering teeth, slurred speech, and higher pain sensitivity
Medications Used in Detox to Help with Withdrawal
Detox is the process your body will go through to eliminate heroin from the body, and detox is often completed in a medical setting. In a medication-assisted treatment for patients going through detox from heroin, medications may be used to help lessen the symptoms of withdrawal so the patient is not in so much pain and anguish through the process. There are a few different medications used in heroin detox.
Methadone—Methadone is an opioid medication used for to help combat the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. The drug decreases the cravings for heroin and is usually administered in larger doses, then gradually tapered down through the treatment process.
Clonidine—Clonidine acts as a sedative during the detox process, and it naturally wards off some of the withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin detox. Even though Clonidine is primarily used for high blood pressure, it is effective for heroin detox as well.
Naltrexone—Naltrexone is an opiate blocker, so it counteracts the effects of heroin in the body, blocking its ability to produce the usual euphoric feelings. Naltrexone is most effective when a patient has overdosed on heroin or used to prevent someone from relapsing after treatment has concluded.
Buprenorphine—Known as a common alternative to methadone, buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. It can combat the symptoms of withdrawal, but will also block brain receptors from reacting when heroin is present in the system.
Treatment and Rehabilitation Options for Heroin Abuse
There are many different forms of treatment for people suffering from heroin addiction. Because heroin use has become such a common reason for people to seek treatment, more and more facilities have opened in recent years to aid those looking for sobriety.
Some of the most common options for treatment for heroin addiction include:
- Inpatient programs that require a stay in a facility with medical supervision, therapy, and treatment
- Outpatient medicinal treatment with drugs like methadone and buprenorphine
- Dual diagnosis treatment facilities that tend to the addiction and other psychological issues at once
- Heroin detox facilities specifically aimed at helping patients get through the detox process
The risks of an overdose from heroin use are extremely high with as many as 50,000 people dying from a heroin overdose in 2016. As many as four million people in the U.S. claim to have used heroin, so addiction to this drug is not one that you will be facing alone if you choose to get help. Take steps toward sobriety so you can find a life free from the vices of heroin abuse.
NIDA – Drug Facts- Heroin
Drug-Free World – Heroin -International Statistics
NIDA – Heroin Use in the US