What is Heroin?
Heroin is an extremely addictive illegal street drug derived from morphine, which comes from the opium poppy plant. Because of its properties as a painkiller, heroin was originally sold as a medication, but that stopped after people who took it quickly became addicted. It is sold on the street as either a brown or white powder or black tar heroin that users smoke, inject, or snort. More than 2000 people die each year from heroin use.
How Does Heroin Use Affect the Brain?
Once heroin enters the body, it is converted to morphine, which quickly attaches to opioid receptors in the brain. Activating these receptors slows down the nervous system, blocks any feelings of pain, and produces the euphoric high that drugs users seek. It does so by flooding the brain with dopamine, the chemical involved with “reward centers” in the brain. The pleasurable feelings produced when heroin activates these reward centers makes heroin highly addictive, even though the rush is relatively short-lived, lasting 15-30 minutes.
Short-Term Heroin Effects
After the short high has worn off, heroin continues to affect the body as a painkiller and central nervous system depressant.
For hours after taking heroin, the user may experience:
- Feelings of heaviness in the limbs
Heroin use may cause abusers to drift in and out of consciousness for hours, known as “nodding” or “on the nod.”
Other unwanted side effects may include:
- Dry mouth
- Itchy skin
- Sensitivity to light
- Lowered body temperature
- Depressed breathing rate
- Depressed heart rate
Depressed heart and breathing rate are the most dangerous side effects of heroin use. Heroin overdose can cause breathing and heart rates low enough to cause hypoxia, a severe reduction in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. Hypoxia can result in coma, brain damage, or death. Heroin overdose can be treated successfully with naloxone if it is administered promptly. Naloxone attaches to the same opioid receptors as heroin, blocking heroin from the receptors and preventing heroin from affecting the brain and central nervous system.
People who use heroin develop a tolerance for it, meaning that with each use, a higher or more frequent dose is required to produce the same high. The user craves the euphoric high and will use heroin more frequently to feel that rush. The body becomes physically dependent on heroin, and the user will actually feel sick when not using heroin.
Withdrawal symptoms can begin within a few hours of the last dose of heroin and can include:
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Uncontrollable leg movements
- Cold flashes
- Racing heartbeat
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
Heroin is a devastating addiction, but it can be overcome. Treatment can be medical, behavioral, or a combination of both. The first step is detoxification to remove heroin from the body. Because this process can be extremely uncomfortable, the risk of relapse is high during this stage. Inpatient treatment can help the user resist the urge to use heroin during detox.
Medical treatment uses medication as a substitute for heroin while weaning the user off of heroin. Buprenorphine and methadone both activate the same receptors as heroin, but without such strong effects, producing lower cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone blocks opioid receptors so that heroin will no longer produce any effect in the brain. However, these drugs can also become addictive.
Behavioral treatment for heroin use includes cognitive-behavioral and contingency management to help the user understand the triggers behind use and remain motivated to stay sober. Further support from residential rehab, outpatient therapy, and community support can help the user to maintain sobriety.
If you or someone you love struggles with heroin addiction, call toll-free for assistance.