An opioid drug synthesized from morphine and derived from the opium poppy plant, heroin is a highly addictive and dangerous Schedule I illicit drug. This means that the DEA certifies that heroin has no accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse.
In 2011, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 4.2 million people over the age of 11 in the United States had used heroin at least one time, with 23 percent of users becoming dependent on it. Heroin binds to opioid receptors located throughout the brain and body, particularly within the brain stem and central nervous system (CNS). Heroin affects pain receptors and emotions as well as depresses functions vital for life, including respiration and blood pressure. Heroin is abused by snorting, sniffing, smoking, injecting, or inhaling the drug. Each of these methods of abuse carries specific health risks and side effects.
Side Effects of Heroin Abuse
Heroin is a dangerous drug with many short- and long-term health risks associated with any method of abuse. Heroin clouds thinking and judgment, constricts pupils, slows breathing and heart rate, dries the mouth, weakens muscles, makes you drowsy and nauseous, and may initiate mood swings. Long-term effects may include:
- Cold sweats
- Gum inflammation
- Muscle weakness
- Permanent organ damage
- Undermined immune system
- Loss of appetite
- Menstrual disturbance or spontaneous abortion in women
- Memory loss or cognitive impairment
Specific Risks Associated With Smoking and/or Snorting Heroin
Smoking or snorting heroin sends the drug quickly into the bloodstream, causing an almost immediate effect. This rapid bypassing of the blood-brain barrier can suppress the CNS to dangerously low levels, causing hypothermia, coma, and even fatal overdose. An overdose is characterized by difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, blue tinged lips, skin or nails, disorientation, severe drowsiness, or loss of consciousness. An overdose is a medical emergency, and if you suspect one, seek immediate medical care.
Additionally, smoking heroin can cause lung damage and respiratory diseases, including pneumonia and bronchitis. Smoking heroin can also cause lasting damage to the brain, liver, heart, and kidneys. Heroin abuse can lead to collapsed veins as well. Heroin smoking may also lead to an event called “nodding” wherein the user alternates quickly between periods of wakefulness and sleeping, as well as experiences a feeling of heaviness, nausea, and vomiting that can last for a few hours.
When heroin is snorted, various drug paraphernalia may be used, which are often shared or not sterile. The use of shared or dirty utensils increases the risk for infectious diseases like hepatitis or bacterial infections. Another danger of snorting heroin is that heroin is rarely pure. It is often mixed with unknown toxins, and you may not know what is in the powder form you are sending directly into your bloodstream via your nasal and sinus tissues, thus increasing the risk for a dangerous interaction or overdose.
One of the more dangerous health risks associated with heroin abuse is that of addiction. Heroin makes chemical changes in the brain, affecting the brain’s reward system and flooding the brain with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure. This encourages users to continue to introduce the drug due to its euphoric effects. Chronic abusers may easily develop a tolerance to the drug, requiring more and more each time in order to obtain the same desired effects. The brain then becomes dependent on the drug over time, and no longer functions normally without it. Addiction is defined as continuing to use drugs despite any adverse consequences. An addict will be consumed with heroin, spending most of his time thinking about the drug, seeking it out, using heroin, and recovering from its effects.
Heroin dependence occurs when the brain and body experience withdrawal symptoms without the presence of the drug. Withdrawal from heroin can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening. Since heroin suppresses certain brain functions, when it is removed, the brain may rebound and become hyperactive. Signs of withdrawal are both physical and psychological and can include:
- Muscle and bone pain
- Abdominal cramps and/or vomiting
- Cold flashes
- Mood swings
Withdrawal symptoms and their severity are dependent on the length of time the drug was abused, the method of abuse, and dosage levels as well as genetic and environmental factors. Physical symptoms generally start within 12 hours of the last dose and can continue for several days. Emotional withdrawal side effects as well as extreme drug cravings can last longer and be very intense. You should never attempt to quit heroin suddenly, or cold turkey, but rather should undergo a detox process in a safe and medically supervised environment.
The 1970 Controlled Substance Act made it illegal to possess heroin; therefore, it is traditionally associated with the seedy, poor, and criminal underbelly of America. This illicit street drug is making its way into the suburbs, however. Recent drug trends may indicate that as prescription opioids are becoming more regulated and harder to obtain, heroin use may be escalating. For example, a dose of heroin may now be cheaper than a hit of OxyContin.
With so many people being prescribed and becoming dependent on prescription medications, heroin may be a likely transition as prescription narcotics abuse is more locked down through more restrictive DEA drug scheduling and drug diversion control. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, reports that heroin abuse over the last decade has increased 60 percent for first-time users, for instance. Heroin abuse now spans socioeconomic, cultural, and gender lines with the mean age for initiating the abuse being 22 or 23, according to Forbes.
Heroin Abuse Treatment
Addiction is a brain disease that has both physical and psychological ramifications. Left untreated, heroin abuse can destroy lives, families, and communities. Fortunately, rehabilitation centers that focus on long-term mental and physical health can produce successful results. The process of purging heroin from the system, called detox, can be dangerous and miserable, and it is best performed in a professional detox center. Medical detox is often employed in the case of heroin. This method utilizes pharmaceuticals, including methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, to help manage difficult withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
Heroin is considered a fast-acting opioid with a relatively short half-life. This means it enters and exits the bloodstream rather quickly. Methadone, on the other hand, is a slow-acting opioid that can provide a longer lasting and less potent effect. It is often used to help heroin addicts wean themselves safely off the drug. Buprenorphine medications, including Subutex and Suboxone, are partial opioid agonists, which do not give users a high, but can relieve drug cravings. Suboxone also contains naloxone, which is an opioid antagonist that effectively blocks opioid receptors from receiving more opioids. So if a heroin addict attempts to ingest more heroin, an opioid antagonist would prevent it from attaching to the receptors in the brain, discouraging further heroin use. Naltrexone, marketed as Depade, ReVia, or Vivitrol, is also an opioid antagonist meant to prevent future drug abuse and relapse.
Detox is merely a step in a heroin treatment program. In order to be successful, detox should be coupled with psychotherapy and emotional support groups. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, is effective in helping addicts to learn how to change their negative behaviors into more positive ones.
Addicts also rarely take good care themselves and a full-service rehabilitation center like Axis, which offers nutritious diet plans, fitness activities, and spa treatments, can go a long way toward fostering a healthy recovery. Call us today to learn more about our treatment offerings.