Heroin Addiction

Heroin Addiction

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Heroin is an illegal opioid that is considered a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has strong addiction potential and severe detrimental side effects. Opiates are naturally derived from the opium poppy and have been used for centuries dating back to 3400 B.C. when it was grown and cultivated in Mesopotamia to help relieve pain and produce euphoria. Today opiates and opioids are one of the leading causes of deaths resulting from overdose. Many opioids are prescription painkillers however heroin is an illegal opioid found on the streets serving no medical purpose.


Heroin was developed in 1874 in Germany and soon made its way to the United States and the rest of the world. North America consumes more than 40% of the world’s heroin which has resulted in a severe epidemic of heroin-related diseases and deaths. This drug is either smoked or injected intravenously or subcutaneously (through the skin) and therefore like any other injectable drug, heroin has an increased rate of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. According to a study, approximately 900,000 individuals 12 years of age or older reported using heroin in the past year, about 435,000 individuals were current heroin users, about 586,000 individuals have a heroin use disorder and there are approximately 13,000 deaths from a heroin overdose in a given year and these numbers are on the rise. Heroin is sold on the street and common nicknames include chasing the dragon, H, Chine white, junk, smack, and many others.

Is heroin addictive?

Heroin is known as one of the most addictive substances because of how it works in the brain. Heroin, like all other opioids, bind to natural mu opioid receptors in our brain which produce a euphoric feeling throughout the body and decrease or eliminate any physical pain.

The body has natural opioids known as endorphins however when heroin enters the body it hijacks the same receptors causing these natural endorphins to not work as effectively. In other words, heroin hijacks the brain and the body. Heroin does not only produce a high sensation of euphoria but it also creates some of the worse withdrawal effects an individual can experience, which is the main reason why so many individuals continue to use and use time and time again. When a user stops using heroin, they will undergo excruciating withdrawal effects such as bone pain, stomach pain, headaches, mood swings and diarrhea that feel almost lethal. The major peak between 24–48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. Although withdrawing from heroin is not life-threatening, these side effects are so terrible that many individuals are unable to give up using.

Numbing emotional pain with heroin

Our emotions are regulated by structures in the limbic system known as the amygdala. As humans, we tend to thrive on positive emotions and try to hide or numb our negative emotions. Our brains are all processing a low level of stress and anxiety however we do not recognize them until they heighten and come into our conscious awareness. For many, it is difficult to face and work through negative emotions and many individuals use alcohol, painkillers and unhealthy behaviors to cope. Heroin, in particular, creates a sense of euphoria and therefore allow individuals to feel comfortably numb and over time this can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

How heroin acts in the body

Heroin like all other opioids is a central nervous system depressant meaning that it slows the body’s metabolism down, decreases the breathing rate, and slows down the heart. Heroin does act on mu receptors stimulating dopamine and feelings of euphoria, producing a rush throughout the body. This euphoric rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur.

How long does heroin stay in your system?

Heroin’s effects last longer than the effects of drugs like cocaine and meth, but it has a particularly short half-life of only 30 minutes. This means that as a user takes a single dose of heroin it will take theoretically 30 minutes for half of the drug to be eliminated from the individual’s system. The actual time this takes for each individual depends on the following factors:

  • Height and weight
  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Body fat content
  • Dosage
  • Quality of drug
  • Metabolism rate
  • Health of liver and kidneys
  • Hydration station

Drugs tests that are approved for heroin are those for the blood, saliva, urine and hair follicle. It can only take five to six hours for heroin to become undetectable in bodily fluids and usually, heroin is no longer detected in an individual’s urine after two days of most recent use. The only detection test that works for longer than seven days is the hair follicle test, which can detect heroin for up to three months.

Risks associated with heroin use?

Heroin can affect many organs in the body and can result in depressed breathing and heart rate leading to an overdose. In fact, most drug overdoses in the United States are opioid-related and heroin is a major component in this. It is nearly impossible to tell what heroin is cut with and how pure it is and therefore the user is risking their life when using heroin because of its production in labs and distribution on the street. As a result, individuals can overdose and die during their first experience with heroin or during their 70th experience with heroin and because of so many unknowns, this drug is considered extremely lethal. Chronic heroin use changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain, creating long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems that are not easily reversed, if at all. Studies have shown some deterioration of the brain’s white matter due to heroin use, which may affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations. Injecting heroin over time can result in infections at the injection site, deep tissue infections, and blood-borne illnesses. Lung complications may result from smoking heroin and can include pneumonia and tuberculosis. Depression and antisocial personality disorder are common in chronic heroin users. Sexual dysfunction is increased after chronic use and for individuals who snort heroin; nasal mucosa can be damaged resulting in nosebleeds and septum defects.

Signs and symptoms of heroin toxicity
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Constricted pupils (meiosis)
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression (shallow and short breathing)
  • Track marks on skin or fresh puncture wounds
  • Weight loss
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent nose bleeds (if heroin is snorted)

Like with any type of drug abuse, heroin use also results in changes in behavior causing decreased work performance, conflicts within relationships, immoral behavior such as lying and even illegal behavior such as theft or violence.

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Heroin and Alcohol

Both heroin and alcohol have the same overall effects, as they are central nervous system depressant drugs. Because alcohol and heroin have similar overall effects, but primarily work on different neurotransmitter systems, using both drugs together enhances the effects of each drug and at the same time results in different sensations and experiences than using either drug alone. Both alcohol and heroin will result in a significant decrease in breathing and rate and substantial issues with balance and coordination. A reduction in reaction time, high-level thinking and decision making and new memory formation will most likely occur. There is a significant increase in the potential to overdose on either drug. Most likely, individuals using heroin and alcohol will take significantly larger amounts of alcohol than heroin, and issues associated with high levels of alcohol use can include alcohol poisoning and alcohol overdose. Heroin overdose is also possible because using both drugs together lowers the threshold at which an individual can overdose on either drug.

Heroin Abuse and Addiction Treatment

Treatment for heroin addiction is best suited with a combination of medications and psychotherapy. Intranasal or injectable naloxone, an opioid receptor blocker, is used to prevent heroin overdose by rapidly reversing the respiratory depression and sedation caused by heroin intoxication. Additional medications include methadone, an opioid agonist and buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist and antagonist. These medications are given to ease the withdrawal effects of heroin and other opioids and prevent future cravings. Buprenorphine is often mixed with naloxone and is known as Suboxone and is known to induce opioid withdrawals if taken with heroin or other opioids. When not taken in conjunction with other heroin this medication aims to ease the withdrawal effects and prevent cravings.