Heroin is a type of opioid made from morphine. This substance is obtained from opium poppy seeds, which grow in Mexico, Colombia, and Southeast Asia.
Also known as smack, horse, hell dust, and big H, it usually takes the form of white or brown powder. There’s also a sticky, black type of heroin known as black tar.
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Heroin Facts and Figures
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 15,000 Americans died from a heroin overdose in the year 2018 alone. This is a rate of about 5 out of every 100,000 residents. In total, 115,000 Americans have died due to heroin since the year 1999.
What’s sadder is that adolescents are also using this fatal drug. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 21,000 adolescents used heroin in the year 2015 alone. To make matters worse, 6,000 of these adolescents already suffer from heroin use disorder.
Despite the rising rates of heroin deaths, overdoses have been on the decline. These numbers were particularly pronounced in the Midwest, including 7 states and the DC area.
However, heroin cases have seen a sharp rise in 3 states, especially in Kentucky where cases jumped by a whopping 50%. The highest death rate was noted in Vermont, where 12.5 out of 100,000 people succumbed to heroin use.
How Often Do Heroin Addicts Take Drugs?
Unfortunately, people who are addicted to heroin need to use the drug frequently. In fact, they often sniff, smoke, snort, or inject heroin at least once a day.
This activity can be attributed to the fact that heroin is highly addictive. Those who use it regularly develop tolerance, which means they need to take more to experience the same effects.
As this continues, the person can develop substance use disorder (SUD). Here, drug use leads to health problems – as well as the inability to fulfill his/her other life responsibilities. SUD can be mild or moderate, with the most severe form being full-blown addiction.
When the individual is unable to take heroin, he/she may develop the following withdrawal symptoms within a few hours:
- Immense cravings for heroin
- Sleep problems
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Bone or muscle pain
- Cold turkey – cold flashes that come with goosebumps
- Kicking the habit – uncontrollable leg jerking
What Happens After Taking Heroin?
After taking heroin, it immediately enters the brain where it binds to the opioid receptors. It usually affects the cells that govern pain and pleasure, as well as the vital processes of the heart beating, breathing, and sleeping.
In the short term, heroin’s effects include:
- Impaired mental functioning
- Nodding – going back and forth from consciousness to unconsciousness
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Warm skin flushes
- Heavy arms and legs
When heroin is abused for a long time, the effects can include:
- Stomach cramping and constipation
- Mental issues such as depression
- Purulent areas on the skin (abscesses)
- Infection of the heart valves and lining
- Lung problems such as pneumonia
- Liver or kidney disease
- Collapsed veins (for those who inject heroin)
- Damaged nasal tissue (for those who snort heroin)
- Sexual dysfunction for men
- Irregular periods in women
Studies show that long-term opioid use also affects the white matter of the brain. This explains why users have problems with controlling behavior, responding to stress, and making decisions.
Complications of Taking Heroin
Apart from the adverse health effects stated above, heroin can also lead to other complications.
Products that come with additives such as milk, starch, or sugar can potentially block the vessels. This can lead to permanent damage to the brain, heart, or lungs.
On the other hand, sharing needles – complemented by the impaired decision-making that comes with heroin – can lead to an increased risk of HIV, Hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.
As with most illegal drugs, frequent, increased use of heroin can lead to overdose. When this happens, the person’s breathing slows down – or stops for good. Because oxygen is unable to reach the brain, the individual suffers from hypoxia. This can lead to a coma – even permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
The risk for overdose is more likely in people who:
- Have an opioid/heroin use disorder
- Take heroin by injection
- Use heroin after a period of abstinence
- Ingest heroin with alcohol or medications that affect respiration, such as Barbiturates, Anesthesia, Benzodiazepines, and Pain meds
- Suffer from medical conditions such as mental health disorders, lung/liver disease, and/or HIV
Overdose is also more common in males of older age – as well in those with lower social-economic statuses.
Although fatal, overdose can be reversed with Naloxone. It is available in various forms, namely an injectable, auto-injector, or nasal spray.
When given, Naloxone binds to opioid receptors – thus counteracting the effects of heroin and other opioids. In some cases, multiple doses have to be given for the individual to breathe again.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
As with other drug issues, certain treatments may help stop addicts from using heroin.
The first phase is detoxification, which is the process of flushing the drugs off the person’s system. This can help manage the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that make quitting hard.
The most commonly-used drugs during the process are Methadone and Buprenorphine, which work by binding on the opioid receptors on the brain. As a result, they may help reduce heroin cravings – as well as its accompanying withdrawal symptoms.
Naltrexone is also prescribed to block the effects of heroin.
Another drug used that can help curb addiction is Lofexidine, which is designed to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Apart from the use of the above-mentioned medications, addicts will also benefit from behavioral therapy. Examples include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which aims to change the individual’s drug-use behaviors and expectations – as well as teach stress/trigger management techniques
- Contingency management, which operates on motivational incentives that reward non-usage
Heroin is a type of opioid that has killed 5 in every 100,000 Americans. It is highly addictive, which is why most users take it daily. Unfortunately, frequent usage can lead to short-term and long-term effects, with the most alarming being overdoses.
As with most cases, heroin addiction may be treated with detoxification, medication, and therapy.
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