Opioids are a class of pain-relieving drugs. They include prescription drugs, such as morphine, codeine, and oxycodone. They also include illegal substances, such as heroin or opium.
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Smoking heroin is just one method of using opioids, but it demonstrates the risks and the nightmare of withdrawal. So, if you’d like to learn more about this substance, keep reading.
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What is Heroin?
Heroin is a processed form of morphine, a naturally occurring substance that can be extracted from certain species of the poppy plant.
Heroin tends to be cut with other substances, meaning it’s mixed with other chemicals. Pure heroin will come in a white powder form, the same as morphine. But most heroin will appear black, brown, or gray.
In the US, heroin is a Schedule I drug. This means that it serves no medical function and is incredibly addictive with a high potential for abuse.
Methods of Using Heroin
People use heroin in a variety of ways. But there are three main methods: snorting, injecting and smoking.
In its powder form, users can snort heroin. Different approaches exist for the various types of heroin. For example, with black tar heroin, the substance comes in a solid form and has to be ground into a powder and mixed with lactose.
To inject heroin, it has to be “cooked” into a liquid form or mixed with water. It can be injected into a muscle or under the skin, but it’s common for people to “mainline” the substance by injecting it directly into a vein.
Heroin can be inhaled using a pipe or vape, similar to other substances such as meth, marijuana, and DMT (dimethyltryptamine).
But the most common method is foil smoking, also known as “chasing the dragon.” This is when heroin is placed into aluminum foil, heated with a lighter, and then inhaled through a straw.
Another approach is mixing heroin into a marijuana cigarette or joint. The street name for this combination is “atom bomb” or “A-bomb.”
Risks for Heroin
Although snorting or smoking heroin can reduce the risk of infection (such as HIV or hepatitis C) and overdose compared to injection, there is no safe way of taking this extremely addictive substance. Heroin use has a long list of risks, with overdose just being one example.
We’ll focus on the risks associated with smoking heroin, but most of these apply to the other methods as well.
Short-Term Effects on the Brain
Heroin gets converted back into morphine as it enters the brain. These initial moments produce “the rush,” a short period of euphoria caused by the morphine binding to the opioid receptors.
The high is often accompanied by feelings of disorientation, calmness, pain relief, and drowsiness. The latter of these effects will carry on for several hours, accompanied by a feeling of mental fog.
Long-Term Effects on the Brain
Long-term use begins to rewire the brain’s circuitry, forcing the brain to produce more opioid receptors. This creates a heroin tolerance, meaning that an individual will have to take more heroin each time to get a similar high.
Using heroin repeatedly also disrupts and damages the white and gray matter of the brain.
White matter is essential for allowing communication between different brain structures, and interference can lead to problems with neurotransmitters and hormones.
One example of this is dopamine levels. Lower dopamine levels are associated with depression.
Gray matter interference can impact muscle movement, decision-making, emotions, and behavior. This damage is most noticeable within the prefrontal cortex, where we process and retrieve information.
Short-Term Effects on the Body
The physical effects of heroin use are far from pleasant. They include:
- Itchy skin
- Dry mouth
- Heavy limbs
- Reduced heart rate
- Reduced breath rate
Breathing can become so slow that the individual’s brain is no longer receiving enough oxygen, known as cerebral hypoxia.
Brain cells can begin dying in minutes when their oxygen supply is cut off. As such, cerebral hypoxia can lead to brain damage, a coma, and death.
Long-Term Effects on the Body
Due to how heroin negatively impacts the brain and body, there are countless long-term physical health implications. These include:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Endocarditis (a heart infection)
- Breakdown of the central nervous system
- Lung problems, such as asthma, labored breathing and reduced lung function
The lasting impact of these long-term issues will depend on the individual and their situation.
Overdosing on Heroin
Overdosing on drugs is an increasing problem worldwide, due in part to increased potency and availability.
Heroin, for example, is purer and cheaper than ever before. Suppliers are cutting heroin with more powerful substances, such as fentanyl.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), over 70% of drug overdose deaths in the US in 2019 involved opioids. And about 33% of these deaths involved heroin.
A heroin overdose occurs when the opioid receptors in the brain and body become blocked by a high dose of opioids.
This makes regular functioning impossible. The heart and lungs, which usually function automatically, become slow and labored, sometimes stopping altogether.
With heroin, an overdose will usually begin within minutes of consumption. If suppliers cut the batch with fentanyl, it could be a matter of seconds.
Signs of an Overdose
With opioids, death from overdosing doesn’t happen immediately. Being aware of the signs can be the difference between life and death:
- Loss of consciousness
- Limp body
- Pale skin
- Heartbeat is slow, weak, or erratic
- Clammy skin
- Bluish tones on fingertips, lips, and skin
- Choking or gurgling sounds
If you find someone displaying these symptoms but don’t know if they’ve taken anything, the safest option is to call emergency services.
Becoming Addicted to Heroin
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 80% of heroin users previously abused prescription painkillers.
Heroin addiction is challenging to overcome due to the pain-killing nature of the substance caused by endorphins. Users suffering from physical or psychological pain or distress associate the drug with relief.
There are many therapies available that can help tackle the core of addictive behavior.
Heroin withdrawal happens within the first 24-48 hours of the last dose. Symptoms include:
- Bone and muscle pain
- Abdominal cramping
- Cold flashes
- Involuntary limb movement
These withdrawal symptoms generally last a week. But for more long-term users, they could persist for weeks or months.
Talking to an expert about drug addiction treatment can help you understand the withdrawal and rehabilitation process. You are not alone, and support is available!
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