Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine, a natural substance taken from the different opium poppy plants grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin comes in a couple different forms, but it is typically a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Common street names for heroin include bigH, horse, hell dust, and smack People use heroin by injecting, sniffing, snorting, or smoking it. It is common for some people to mix heroin with crack cocaine, a drug combination called speedballing.

What are the effects of using heroin?

Heroin takes effect on the brain quickly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas of the brain, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. It also controls parts of the brain responsible for the heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the short-term effects of heroin include feeling a “rush” (a surge of pleasure, or euphoria). However, there are other common effects, including:

  • dry mouth
  • warm flushing of the skin
  • heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe itching
  • clouded mental functioning
  • going in between a state of consciousness and semi-consciousness

Individuals using heroin over a longer period of time may develop problems such as:

  • insomnia
  • collapsed veins for people who inject the drug
  • damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort it
  • infection of the heart lining and valves
  • abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
  • constipation and stomach cramping
  • liver and kidney disease
  • lung complications, including pneumonia
  • mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
  • sexual dysfunction for men
  • irregular menstrual cycles for women

There are many other commons risks associated with heroin use. In many cases, heroin is cut with other substances as filler. It often contains certain additives, such as sugar, starch, or powdered milk, that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause permanent damage to an individual’s body. In addition, sharing drug injection equipment such as needles and experiencing impaired judgment from drug use can greatly increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Heroin Overdoses

It is certainly possible for an individual to overdose on heroin. A heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. Heroin overdoses have greatly increased in recent years and have risen to epidemic levels in many communities. When people overdose on heroin, their breathing often slows or stops. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain. This condition is called hypoxia. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Hypoxia can have short- and long-term effects on an individual’s mental state and on the nervous system. Risks include coma and permanent brain damage.

When caring for an individual who is suspected of overdosing on heroin, it is crucial to seek medical attention from emergency facilities as soon as possible. Emergency treatment of a heroin overdose either by emergency personnel or a bystander may involve the delivery of Naloxone to the victim. Naloxone is a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose when given right away after a suspected overdose. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors in the brain and blocking the effects of the heroin and other opioid drugs. It is possible for more than one dose to be administered in order to help a person start breathing again. For this reason, it is very important to get the person to an emergency department or a doctor to receive additional medical support and follow up.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

There are a range of treatments possible for treating heroin addiction. These include medicines and behavioral therapies that have been shown to be effective in helping people stop heroin use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests matching the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of each individual patient.

Medications have been developed to help with the withdrawal process from heroin. The FDA has approved lofexidine, a non-opioid medicine designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Other medications that have been used to help people stop using heroin include buprenorphine and methadone. These medicines work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin, but more weakly, in turn, reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another medication is naltrexone, which completely blocks opioid receptors and also prevents opioid drugs from having an effect.

Behavioral therapies for heroin addiction include treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps modify the patient’s drug-use expectations and behaviors, and helps effectively manage triggers and stresses of daily life. Contingency management therapy provides motivational incentives to patients, such as vouchers or small cash rewards for positive behaviors such as staying drug-free. These behavioral treatment approaches are especially effective when used along with other medicines.