Heroin is an opiate drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant.
Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.” Heroin can be injected, snorted/sniffed, or smoked—routes of administration that rapidly deliver the drug to the brain. Injecting is the use of a needle to administer the drug directly into the bloodstream. Snorting is the process of inhaling heroin powder through the nose, where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal tissues. Smoking involves inhaling heroin smoke into the lungs. All three methods of administering heroin can lead to addiction and other severe health problems.
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Short-term effects of heroin include a surge of euphoria and clouded thinking followed by alternately wakeful and drowsy states. Heroin enters the brain, where it is converted to morphine and binds to receptors known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain (and in the body), especially those involved in the perception of pain and in reward. Opioid receptors are also located in the brain stem—important for automatic processes critical for life, such as breathing (respiration), blood pressure, and arousal. Heroin overdoses frequently involve a suppression of respiration.
After an intravenous injection of heroin, users report feeling a surge of euphoria (“rush”) accompanied by dry mouth, a warm flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities, and clouded mental functioning. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Users who do not inject the drug may not experience the initial rush, but other effects are the same. With regular heroin use, tolerance develops, in which the user’s physiological (and psychological) response to the drug decreases, and more heroin is needed to achieve the same intensity of effect. Heroin users are at high risk for addiction.
Heroin abuse is associated with serious health conditions, including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, and—particularly in users who inject the drug—infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the abuser as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin often contains toxic contaminants or additives that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs.
The withdrawal syndrome from diacetylmorphine (the so-called cold turkey) may begin within 6 to 24 hours of discontinuation of the drug; however, this time frame can fluctuate with the degree of tolerance as well as the amount of the last consumed dose. Symptoms may include: sweating, malaise, anxiety, depression, akathisia, extra sensitivity of the genitals in females, general feeling of heaviness, cramp-like pains in the limbs, excessive yawning or sneezing, tears, sleep difficulties (insomnia), cold sweats, chills, severe muscle and bone aches; nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and fever.