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What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that alters the function of the brain. Other common names for heroin include “hell dust,” “big H,” “smack,” and “horse.” Heroin is made from morphine, which is a natural substance that comes from opium poppy plant pods that grow in Colombia, Mexico, and Asia.

People who use heroin regularly often develop a tolerance to it. This means that to continue getting the desired effect from the drug, they have to use more frequent or higher doses (or sometimes both). Heroin can be smoked, sniffed, injected or snorted. Some people mix crack cocaine with heroin, which is referred to as speedballing.

Most people (almost 80%) who use heroin are already addicted to prescription opioids before they turn to heroin. This means that most people who use heroin are already dependent on opioids to function. Even for those who are not previously addicted to prescription medications, it is easy to develop a dependence on heroin in a short period because it is one of the most addictive illicit drugs available.

Is Heroin an Opioid?

Heroin is an opioid, which means it has powerful pain relief properties. Some opioids (such as hydrocodone and morphine) are prescription medications while others (including heroin) are illegal “street drugs.” Prescription opioids are typically administered to treat moderate to severe pain. Heroin is never prescribed and its use is always illegal in the United States.

Opiates are potent and dangerous when used improperly. Even when used as prescribed, opiates can have negative impacts on the brain and body. Here are some of the ways prescription and non-prescription opiates can affect those who take them.

Opiate Effects on the Respiratory System

Overdosing on heroin or opioid painkillers can cause the breathing to slow down significantly. This can deprive the body tissues and the brain of the essential oxygen needed to function properly. If the breathing rate slows down enough, the result could be a debilitating injury to one or more organ systems. It could also lead to death.

Opiate Effects on the Brain

The prolonged use of opiates can cause an increased risk of major depression. This may sound strange since they are associated with feelings of relaxation and euphoria. But every “high” leads to an inevitable “low” that can be quite intense.

Additionally, opiates can also cause daytime sleepiness and can cause the abuser to slip in and out of consciousness. This can impact every aspect of life, from professional responsibilities to relationships.

Opiate Effects on the Digestive System

Opiates can lead to constipation by causing the muscles of the digestive system to slow down and inhibit digestive transit. Continued constipation from opiate use can put the user at an increased risk of bowel perforation and obstruction. Many people who use opiates frequently also experience periods of nausea and vomiting.

Opiate Effects on the Immune System

Opioids have been linked to suppressed immune system function. This is because opioid receptors directly impact the body’s regulation of immunity. Suppressed immune function increases the likelihood of contracting frequent and potentially serious illnesses.

Opiate Effects on the Nervous System

When opioids are used or abused for long periods, they can lead to increased pain sensitivity. This may be surprising to someone who abuses opioids for the express purpose of relieving pain and increasing feelings of euphoria. Opioid use can also impair psychomotor function and cause a person to experience decreased coordination and slower physical movements.

Opiate Effects on the Liver

Prescription opioids are often combined with acetaminophen, which can lead to liver damage when used excessively. Even those who consume heroin instead of prescription painkillers may experience liver damage when they consume alcohol in combination with heroin (which is common). Taking alcohol with opiates is dangerous and can decrease the liver’s ability to process and remove toxins from the body.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Heroin powder comes in different colors, including white, brown, and even black (which is known as black tar heroin). Black tar heroin is sticky while the other forms of heroin or powdery or come in liquid form. Here is a more detailed overview of the four different types of heroin and what they look like.

Brown Powder Heroin

Brown powder heroin looks a bit like brown sugar or brown sand. The granules are tan in color and the particles may clump together. Brown powder heroin is sticky due to impurities and additives (such as sugar or caffeine). These additives are dangerous because they can clog the blood vessels due to their inability to dissolve in the blood. People may choose to purchase brown powder heroin despite the additional health risks because it is usually less expensive than white powder heroin.

White Powder Heroin

This type of heroin is considered the purest type available. The powdery texture is a lot like chalk, and the particles don’t usually stick together as they do with less pure forms of heroin. White powder heroin granules are commonly mixed with powdered milk, starch, sugar and other white substances. As a result, users are often unaware of how much heroin they are actually taking with each dose. This increases the risk of unintentional overdoses.

Liquid Heroin

To make liquid heroin, dealers often combine black tar heroin with water. Then they sell the substances in eyedroppers or syringes. It is common for liquid heroin to appear poorly mixed and have bits and clumps of material that either sink to the bottom of the syringe or float to the top. Liquid heroin is often brown or black in color.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is a sticky substance. Incomplete drug processing and impurities lead to the dark color that is typical of black tar heroin. Before use, black tar heroin is usually dissolved in water then inserted into the body with a needle.

How can You Spot Heroin Containers?

Heroin is often packaged in baggies, balloons, aluminum squares or gelatin capsules. If you are looking for heroin in a loved one’s room or belongings, keep an eye out for these types of packages. Heroin users also frequently use the following tools to either smoke or inject heroin:

  • Spoons
  • Glass pipes
  • Lighters
  • Syringes
  • Cotton balls
  • Bands (to tie off veins)

Anything that a person uses to inject, cook or smoke heroin is paraphernalia. Some heroin users mistakenly think that smoking the drug instead of injecting it removes the risk of addiction.

What Does Heroin Feel Like?

Heroin use provides rapid and intense feelings of relaxation and euphoria. In addition to marked psychological effects, heroin also causes physical effects such as slowed breathing. Many people describe the feeling of heroin use as a slow-growing, intensely calm sensation.

First-time heroin use can be either incredibly comforting and blissful or uncomfortable and nauseating, depending on the person. Heroin can also cause the skin to flush and itch. But many people like the soothing feeling of blissful oblivion the drug imparts. With repeated use, people need to use heroin more regularly or in higher doses to achieve the same effect they were once able to receive with much smaller or less frequent doses.

People with heroin dependence need the drug regularly just to function normally. People who are dependent on heroin often continue taking it so they can get through their day. Heroin use no longer becomes about chasing a “high.” Instead, it becomes essential for everyday survival.

What Are the Effects of Heroin Use?

Heroin is one of the world’s most dangerous opioids and causes more than 14,000 deaths every year in the United States alone. Here are some of the possible effects of both short- and long-term heroin use:

Short-Term Effects of Heroin

Heroin binds to opioid receptors in the brain which are responsible for regulating pleasure, pain and reward feelings. People who use heroin initially experience pleasurable feelings that turn into feelings of drowsiness and general well-being. Short-term effects of heroin include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing and pulse
  • Dry mouth
  • Warm or flushed skin
  • Clouded thinking
  • Severe itching
  • A sensation of heaviness in the arms and legs
  • “Nodding off,” or alternating between being conscious and semiconscious
  • Nausea and vomiting

The effects of heroin use can last for several hours, depending on the dose taken.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Long-term effects of heroin can in some cases be permanent. They include:

  • Sexual dysfunction in males
  • Constipation and digestion issues
  • Insomnia
  • Kidney or liver damage
  • Increased risk of depression and other mental health disorders
  • Altered or irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • Lung issues (especially if heroin is smoked)

While heroin is deadly on its own, it becomes even more deadly when contaminated or mixed with other drugs. Heroin is commonly mixed with fentanyl, which is 100 times stronger than morphine and causes many overdose deaths. Fentanyl is sometimes added to heroin without the user’s knowledge.

How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?

Heroin has a short half-life (just 30 minutes). So if a user takes one dose of heroin, half the drug will be flushed out of the person’s system in just 30 minutes. Of course, the amount of time it takes for heroin to leave your system depends on a variety of factors such as age, height and weight, body fat content, genetics, and the amount taken. A person’s overall health and metabolism rate can also impact how long heroin stays in their system.

What Are the Signs of Heroin Abuse?

Anyone can abuse heroin, even people you wouldn’t suspect. Often, heroin abusers are bright, social people who seem like they have everything in their life under control. Fortunately, if you know how to recognize signs of heroin abuse, you can help your friends, loved ones or even yourself get the recovery assistance required. Here are some of the more common signs of heroin abuse:

  • Syringes, burnt spoons, candles, and other paraphernalia in a person’s car or home
  • Tiny balloons or baggies that may hold heroin
  • Traces of whitish or tan powder
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent nausea or loss of appetite
  • Sores on the lips or nostrils
  • Frequent sniffing
  • A wheezing sound when breathing
  • Cuts and scabs from scratching at or picking at itchy skin
  • Collapsed or damaged veins or bruising on the arms and legs
  • Nosebleeds
  • Fluctuating moods
  • Depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Stomach cramps and diarrhea

If you notice any of these symptoms in a loved one, you may be witnessing the impact of heroin addiction. You may also notice signs of withdrawal symptoms, such as a runny nose, sweating, dilated pupils, fast heart rate, agitations, and goosebumps.

What Are Heroin Withdrawals Like?

Heroin withdrawals can be extremely intense. Depending on the affected person’s level of dependence on the drug, withdrawal symptoms may begin days or even a few hours after the drug was taken. Common symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:

  • Cold flashes with goose bumps
  • Sleeping problems
  • Restlessness
  • Severe heroin cravings
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Severe bone and muscle pain

Heroin withdrawals can last for days. People who are not as dependent on heroin may recover from their withdrawal symptoms in just one or two days. Others may go through withdrawal symptoms for more than a week before experiencing relief.

What Is the History of Heroin?

The roots of heroin use go thousands of years back. Opium (the narcotic substance extracted from opium poppy plant pods was first used by ancient civilizations in Sumeria and Mesopotamia before it was passed on to other cultures (including the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians), though it wasn’t synthesized until the late 19th century. Pharmaceutical companies used to market it as a drug that could cure many different ailments.

Today, heroin is known for what it really is—a dangerous and highly addictive drug that can destroy health and relationships. Fortunately, there is help available for those with heroin dependence or addiction.

What Is the Current Heroin Epidemic?

According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2016, approximately 1.8% of people (around 4,981,000) have used heroin at least one time. Many people transition to heroin after taking prescription opioids. The primary reason cited for switching from prescription opioids to heroin is affordability. Prescription opioids are notoriously expensive and can become an unmanageable financial burden for many people. It can also be difficult to obtain prescription opioids (especially over long periods of time).

Often, people first become addicted to prescription opioids before progressing to heroin. When prescription opioids are taken as prescribed by a doctor for only a short time, the likelihood of addiction is low. But people can become addicted when they misuse prescription opioids in any of the following ways:

  • Taking someone else’s prescribed opioids
  • Taking a higher dose of prescription opioids than directed
  • Taking prescription opioids for the express purpose of getting high

When misusing a prescription opioid, people sometimes crush the pills up, dissolve them in water, then inject the powdery liquid into a vein. Others may misuse prescription opioid pills by simply swallowing them in their original form (but in higher or more frequent doses than prescribed).

Though abuse of prescription opioids often leads to eventual heroin use and abuse, not all people who become addicted to heroin do so after taking prescription opioids. Some may seek out heroin without any previous opioid use (prescription or otherwise). Others may be introduced to heroin by a friend or acquaintance. No matter how a person is first introduced to the drug, continued heroin use can easily lead to addiction.

Get Help for Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction almost always requires treatment to overcome. Since heroin is such a highly addictive drug, most people who abuse it cannot break the cycle of addiction without outside help. Clean Recovery Centers offers addiction recovery treatments that are designed for long-term success.

We offer a three-phase approach to addiction recovery: preparation, action and maintenance. Each phase is designed to guide and support clients through the various aspects of recovery. With this approach, we help cover the entire spectrum of addiction recovery to improve client outcomes. Our goal is to not just help clients recover from addiction, but to also help them free themselves from the unwanted consequences addiction causes in all aspects of life. Here is a brief overview of the treatment phases we use to help clients finally get clean and stay clean.

Phase 1: Preparation

Phase I is a residential program with medical support round-the-clock. This phase includes both medical detox and residential treatment and takes place over the first three or four treatment weeks. After preparation, the client is ready to advance to phase II.

Phase 2: Action

In this action phase, the client is guided to address underlying issues that led to or contributed to their addiction. This phase can be either residential or non-residential. It usually lasts two to three weeks and helps prepare the client for independent recovery. Individual care may differ in this program based on each client’s unique needs.

Phase 3: Maintenance

Maintenance is perhaps the most essential part of any heroin rehabilitation program. This phase helps the client put what they have learned to use as they transition out of full-time treatment. During this phase, the client receives intensive outpatient treatment for approximately six to eight weeks.

Contact Clean Recovery Center today to learn more about our heroin recovery treatment options.

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