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.
For an effective treatment experience, individuals addicted to heroin must first eliminate the substance from their bodies through medically monitored detox. Once they are stabilized and beginning to heal from the physical effects of the drug, they are better prepared to enter the next phase of treatment and start addressing the psychological, situational and emotional issues behind addiction.
Risks of Heroin Abuse
One of the most harmful, lasting effects of heroin use is addiction. Heroin produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are also powerful motivators of compulsive use and abuse. As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin users gradually spend more and more time and energy getting and using heroin.
Other risks of heroin use include:
- Physical dependence – Physical dependence develops with continued use or higher doses of the drug. The body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly.
- Heroin withdrawal symptoms – Depending on the level of physical dependence on heroin, withdrawal symptoms that occur when it leaves the individual’s system can range from uncomfortable to extremely painful and life-threatening.
- Diseases – Heroin addiction poses special problems because of the potential transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis and other diseases through sharing needles or other injection equipment.
- Overdose – Because heroin users often do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at high risk of overdose or death. Additionally, those with substance use disorders tend to “push the limits,” taking more and more of a drug to get a stronger high.
- Chronic medical complications – Prolonged heroin use can result in scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, liver or kidney disease, lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis), and immune reactions to contaminants contributing to arthritis or other rheumatologic problems.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. Detox should take place in a medically monitored detox setting where pain is eased with evidence-based medications and any emergency situations are attended to immediately. Major heroin withdrawal symptoms typically 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 symptoms may include:
- Intense cravings
- Muscle and bone pain
- Cold flashes
- Abdominal cramps