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Heroin Addiction and Abuse

Heroin is one of the most dangerous, and most addictive, substances known to man. It's also a relatively inexpensive drug, but those who become addicted can spend hundreds of dollars a day on the habit.

Addiction to Heroin

Heroin, Syringe and SpoonHeroin is a potent opiate with an intense effect on the brain reward system.

Heroin rigs this reward system by influencing the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and endorphins.

Out of everyone who tries heroin for the first time, nearly one in four become addicted.

In normal circumstances, the brain releases these chemicals to reward behavior necessary for survival, like eating, and helping people cope with pain.

The brain quickly links heroin to the activation of these chemicals in the brain reward system. Eventually the user becomes addicted and can’t function without the drug. This, along with the withdrawal symptoms of heroin, makes it hard for users to quit on their own.

Some signs that an addiction has formed include:

  • Continuing use despite heroin-related problems
  • Trying and failing to quit or cut down use
  • Having persistent cravings
  • Building a tolerance to heroin
  • Experiencing withdrawal or feeling “junk sick”

Needing escalated doses of heroin to get high, or starting to inject the drug, are strong indications of an addiction. Once addicted, what may have once seemed like a cheap way to have fun, becomes a necessary habit to function in day-to-day activities.

“I ended up using heroin for about 5 years, sniffing it. But I was seeing all the people I was hanging out with who shot it totally jammed, and I was basically feeling normal [because] I now built a tolerance. I was now using heroin, a $150 a day habit, to feel normal.”

Michael D., in recovery from heroin and other drugs

Understanding Heroin

Heroin is a highly addictive painkiller synthesized from morphine, which comes from the seeds of the poppy plant. Because poppy plants are used to make opium, any drugs derived from them are considered opiates. Both heroin and morphine are opiates.

Heroin is also known by names like junk, smack or “H.” Street heroin is often combined with dangerous additives like morphine or the powerful pain reliever fentanyl.

Approximately four million Americans have tried heroin at least once in their lifetime. Symptoms of prolonged heroin use can include severe itchiness, depression and collapsed veins.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Not all heroin looks the same. It comes in several different forms and can be abused in several different ways, including snorting, smoking and injecting.

Fine white powder
White Heroin

This is the purest form of heroin.

Brown or black powder
Brown powder heroin

This form of heroin gets its color from additives and is more common than pure heroin.

Black tar heroin
Black tar heroin

This form of heroin comes as a black sticky gel.

Heroin Effects

Heroin users have described the drug’s high as an intense feeling of well-being. When someone injects heroin, they often experience a “rush” from the drug reaching the brain so quickly.

The rush from intravenous heroin use lasts about two minutes. Intravenous users have likened the rush to an orgasm in terms of pleasure. As heroin travels through the bloodstream, the high lasts for four to five hours.

The general effects of using heroin include:

  • Contentment
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Relieved tension
  • Drowsiness
  • Apathy

The effects of heroin can seem harmless to those who are experimenting with the drug. Although it may produce some dizziness and drowsiness, these effects feel enjoyable. Unlike substances such as alcohol or ecstasy, there generally isn’t a hangover or comedown from initial heroin use, which is an attractive benefit to new users.

What may seem like “harmless” or occasional heroin use often devolves into addiction because tolerance builds quickly. Eventually, the user cannot feel normal without taking the drug because their brain cannot produce natural amounts of dopamine on its own. As the user increases their doses, they are at a greater risk of fatal heroin overdose.

Signs of a heroin overdose include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Tongue discoloration
  • Very small pupils
  • Slow pulse
  • Bluish lips

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Heroin and Other Drugs

People who abuse painkillers have a higher risk of experimenting with and becoming addicted to heroin. Painkillers like OxyContin are classified as opioids because they are synthetic, opiate-like substances activating the same receptors in the brain as heroin.

Painkillers have similar effects to heroin, but these pills can be expensive and hard to acquire. Many people who become addicted to painkillers turn to heroin because it is cheaper and more accessible.

The way painkillers are abused can lead to future heroin abuse as well. Some people crush up painkillers to snort or inject, which introduces them to methods of administration commonly used in heroin abuse.

Close to 50 percent of young people who use heroin reported abusing painkillers before moving on to heroin. Some speculate that heroin may be easier to obtain than painkillers.

Heroin Abuse Statistics

156Kfirst time users

Approximately 156,000 Americans used heroin for the first time in 2012. It is one of the most dangerous drugs, and this number of first-time users has nearly doubled over the past decade.

500Ksought treatment

Close to half a million people received treatment for their heroin addiction in 2012.

20percent of youths

20% of youths aged 12 to 17 reported that they saw either moderate, slight, or virtually no risk in using heroin.

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances in existence, and an addiction to this drug is hard to overcome without help. If you or someone you care about is suffering from a heroin addiction, find treatment and support that can help.

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Sources & Author Last Edited: April 12, 2016

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings. Retrieved on March 1, 2014, from: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2012SummNatFindDetTables/NationalFindings/NSDUHresults2012.htm#ch7.2
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2013). DrugFacts: Heroin. Retrieved on March 2, 2014, from: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
  3. PBS-Frontline. (1998). Heroin in the Brain: Its Chemistry and Effects. Retrieved on March 2, 2014, from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/brain/
  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2013). Heroin Overdose. Retrieved on October 7, 2015 from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002861.htm
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