Heroin Addiction

Heroin Addiction

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What is heroin?

Heroin is an illegal opioid that is considered a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It has a strong addiction potential and severe, detrimental side effects.

Opiates are naturally derived from the opium poppy. Their use dates back to 3400 B.C., being cultivated in Mesopotamia to 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 with no medical benefits.

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Heroin was developed in 1874 in Germany, and soon made its way to the rest of the world. North America consumes more than 40% of the world’s heroin. The drug is either smoked, injected intravenously (into a vein) or injected subcutaneously (through the skin). As with any injectable drug, heroin users have increased rate of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • Roughly 475,000 Americans aged 12 and older report having used heroin in the past month
  • Roughly 948,000 Americans report having used heroin in the past year
  • Roughly 4,981,000 Americans report having used heroin at least once

Heroin is sold on the street. Common alternative terms include chasing the dragon, H, chine white, junk, and smack.

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, binds to natural opioid receptors in the brain, resulting in a euphoric feeling throughout the body and a decrease or elimination of physical pain.

The body produces natural opioids known as endorphins. Heroin binds to the same receptors, causing these natural endorphins not to work as effectively. In other words, heroin hijacks the brain and the body.

Heroin produces a sensation of euphoria. However, it is associated with some of the worst withdrawal symptoms an individual can experience. Chasing the high and escaping withdrawal traps addicted individuals in a cycle of abuse. When someone stops using heroin, they will undergo excruciating withdrawal:

  • Bone pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Diarrhea

Withdrawals peak between 24–48 hours after the last dose of heroin, and subside after about a week. The withdrawal process is so terrible that many individuals are unable to give up using without medically assisted detoxification.

Numbing emotional pain with heroin

Our emotions are regulated by two almond-shaped structures in the brain called the amygdala. We thrive on positive emotions and try to hide or numb negative emotions. Our brains are always processing some level of stress and anxiety; however, we often 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. Some people resort to alcohol, painkillers and unhealthy behaviors to cope.

Heroin, in particular, creates a sense of euphoria, allowing individuals to feel comfortably numb and temporarily at ease. Over time this can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

How heroin affects the body

Heroin, like all opioids, is a central nervous system depressant. This means it slows the body’s metabolism down, decreases the breathing rate and heartrate. Heroin acts on mu receptors, which stimulate dopamine, causing feelings of euphoria and 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 or 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
  • State of hydration

Heroin can be tested for in the blood, saliva, urine, and hair follicle. It can take just five to six hours for heroin to become undetectable in bodily fluids, and usually heroin is no longer traceable in urine after two days of use. The hair follicle test, however, 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 lowered heart rate, leading to an overdose. In fact, most drug overdoses in the United States are opioid-related, many of them related to heroin.

It is nearly impossible to tell what heroin is mixed or “cut” with, or how pure it is. Because of so many unknown factors, each use is life-threatening. An individual could overdose and die during their first experience with heroin or during their 70th experience.

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 affects 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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