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What is Heroin?

Heroin is an illegal drug that causes physical dependence. It is highly addictive. Heroin is the most commonly abused member of the opiate family. It is synthesized from morphine which is a natural substance extracted from poppy plants.

Heroin is usually sold in powder form (white or brown) or as a sticky black substance. Heroin is often “cut” with cheaper substances to make it more profitable for dealers to sell. This can make it difficult for a user to know how strong the heroin is. This places her at risk of overdose. Sharing needles can spread blood-borne diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis.

Using Heroin

Heroin can be injected, sniffed up the nose, or smoked. Its effects wear off after a few hours and a heroin abuser will need to inject up to four times a day to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Injection into a vein is the quickest way to get “high” from heroin (less than 10 seconds) and injecting into a muscle takes longer to have an effect (a few minutes). Smoking or snorting heroin takes about 15 minutes to produce a high.

Most heroin addicts presenting to drug rehab for treatment have been injecting heroin. Certain people prefer to smoke or snort heroin because they believe it is less addictive when used in this way. However, all forms of using heroin are addictive.

Many first time users are reluctant to inject and so will snort or smoke heroin. This has been made possible by the higher grade of purity now available.

Long-term effects of heroin

Heroin use leads to dependence and addiction. Addiction is a chronic illness marked by obsessive and compulsive drug seeking and use accompanied by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain. People using heroin will build tolerance and so develop a physical dependence which interferes with efforts to discontinue using. Heroin addicts need ever increasing quantities to prevent withdrawal and so end up spending a large amount of their time and energy devoted to seeking heroin. Heroin can be seen to have “taken over” the addicts behavior. At this point, it is highly recommended for the addict to seek professional help in a substance abuse treatment facility.

Physical dependence develops with continued use of heroin and the body adapts to expect the presence of the drug. If the drug is stopped or reduced the user will go into withdrawal and experience negative symptoms like vomiting, muscle pain, goosebumps, and insomnia. Withdrawal symptoms will usually take a week to subside, but some people can experience certain symptoms for many months. Admission to a detox clinic will help to mitigate the unpleasant withdrawal effects. Heroin withdrawal should not be fatal to a healthy adult but it can kill the fetus of a pregnant addict. Addiction is nearly inevitable if a person continuously uses heroin and admission to drug rehab may be required to help the addict get clean.

Even after the physical withdrawal is complete heroin addicts experience cravings that are unrelated to physical needs.

People who become dependent on opiates that were prescribed for chronic pain are usually able to discontinue their use after an alternate pain reduction strategy has been found.

Chronic use by injection of heroin can damage veins, even leading to them to collapse. Heroin injectors are prone to bacterial infections of the blood and heart valves. They may develop boils and abscess at the site of injection.

Heroin use is typically accompanied by a lack of self-care which weakens the immune system. Heroin abusers are often more susceptible to opportunistic infections

Heroin is often “cut” with cheaper additives that are not easily dissolvable. They may aggregate in the blood vessels creating blockages that lead to cell death or infection. Immune reactions to these or other contaminants can cause arthritis or other rheumatologic problems.

Sharing needles can lead to very severe consequences. Because a little bit of blood is left in the blood infections are very quickly spread between users. Hepatitis B and C, HIV, and other bloodborne viruses can all be transmitted in this manner.

Additional resources

  • NIDA Research Report: Heroin Abuse and Addiction is a summary of current knowledge about heroin addiction.
  • National Alliance of Methadone Advocates is a website focused on methadone maintenance as a treatment for heroin addiction.
  • Heroin Abuse in the United States is a study on the prevalence of heroin abuse in America.
  • NIH Consensus Statement. Effective Medical Treatment of Opiate Addiction is a review study that compares various treatment methods.
  • Heroin Chic is a study into how the media glamorizes the sickly appearance associated with heroin abuse.
  • Heroin Addiction and History is an educational resource giving context to the heroin problem.
  • Heroin Addiction
  • Heroin addiction myths
  • How do you know if somebody is using heroin?


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