Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid derived from morphine, an alkaloid present in the opium poppy. It is an illicit substance commonly abused in the U.S. and elsewhere. In fact, heroin addiction is a devastating condition that claims the lives of thousands of individuals each year. Due to the opioid epidemic, in recent years, its use has been spiraling out of control.
Many individuals abuse heroin as a last-ditch effort to satisfy an addiction to prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone. Government statistics have revealed that approximately 80% of those who abuse heroin did so after becoming addicted to prescription opioids. To make matters worse, illicit fentanyl has become increasingly prevalent in the heroin drug supply and has even more potent effects and likely to result in a life-threatening overdose. In fact, statistics show that as many as 50% of all opioid overdoses are related to fentanyl.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin, also known as dope, horse, junk, or smack, can be found as a whitish to brownish powder or a dark tacky substance called black tar heroin. As noted, heroin is an opiate derived from the alkaloid morphine found in the opium poppy plant. It can produce intense feelings of happiness and pleasure, a mental state to which many people become addicted.
Unfortunately, the adverse effects of heroin abuse can be severe and lead to health complications that can be detrimental to one’s health, as well as profound respiratory depression and death.
When heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, it changes back into morphine and attaches to receptors responsible for pleasure and reward. It also impacts areas in the brain responsible for regulating body functions such as breathing and blood pressure. Heroin can be administered by snorting, smoking, or, most infamously, injecting.
Heroin is an extremely potent drug, and the ways mentioned above can be used to facilitate a high that is experienced rapidly and intensely. Because of the increase in its supply and ease in obtaining it, individuals from many backgrounds abuse heroin. Prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone have become a gateway drug to its use, so any person who has been prescribed an opioid medication can become prone to heroin abuse, dependence, and addiction.
The opioid crisis has nearly overwhelmed the U.S., and dozens of people die from overdoses every day. Due to the addictive potential of prescription opioids, people who cannot finance their addiction may turn to heroin because it produces an intense high and is less expensive than prescription painkillers, and is also easily obtainable.
Heroin is most commonly found in powder form and a color ranging from white to tan to brown. The color variation is related to the substance’s purity. The lighter it is, the purer and more potent it is when compared with darker colors.
Conversely, some heroin can be found as a solid, sticky, black substance called black tar heroin. The purest heroin is odor-free, while the darker, less pure forms of heroin may have a smell comparable to that of vinegar. If black tar and other relatively impure forms of heroin are smoked, the smell will become more potent, and the vinegar scent will be more pungent yet.
While pure heroin can occasionally be found on the black market, it’s laced with contaminants and other intoxicating drugs more often than not. Moreover, dealers add these substances to heroin to increase profit. And although this process can reduce the amount of heroin used, it can also make ingesting the product more dangerous—especially if it contains more potent drugs such as fentanyl.
Substances heroin is commonly laced with include the following:
- Baking soda
- Baby powder
- Laundry detergent
- Talcum powder
- Rat poison
While some of these contaminants are downright dangerous, such as rat poison, other “safer” ingredients may also jeopardize a user’s health. For example, caffeine mixed with heroin can mask signs of an overdose and make people who use it believe it’s okay to use more. Unfortunately, however, this can result in permanent brain damage or death.
Now that many who become dependent on prescription opioids are aware that heroin is less expensive, demand has increased, and Mexican cartels have responded accordingly. And the risk of addiction and overdose are also at an all-time high as dealers attempt to meet the demand by combining heroin with other substances.
Many experts believe heroin is one of the most addictive drugs in the world. Overcoming addiction is not usually easy, but it is possible, especially when comprehensive, evidence-based treatment is employed. That said, many individuals have struggled multiple times and relapsed after a period of sobriety. But why is overcoming heroin abuse, in particular, so challenging?
Heroin takes over the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and rewires them to think that heroin is a vital chemical and requires it to function normally. The addicted brain becomes singularly focused on achieving a high, no matter the cost—so much so that people will often go to extreme measures to experience this feeling.
Heroin works similar to other opioids, in that it prompts a flood of dopamine, a chemical closely associated with feelings of pleasure, to release in the brain. However, the routes of administration used to ingest heroin contributes to why it can be more addictive than other drugs of its type.
Moreover, unlike prescription opioids, heroin is rarely ingested orally. Drugs consumed in this way are processed and broken down through the digestive system and are released into the bloodstream much more gradually than if they are smoked, snorted, or injected.
Following this experience, many individuals report feeling a compulsion to use the drug repeatedly, and this behavior can rapidly progress into heroin dependence. In addition to tolerance, this condition drives and perpetuates further heroin abuse and can ultimately lead to addiction.
Heroin Detox and Withdrawal
Although not typically life-threatening, detoxing from heroin can be extremely unpleasant and sometimes painful. This can drive a person to use again to avoid symptoms such as depression, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and body aches and pains. Heroin also interferes with regions of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, and motivation, ensuring that the individual who is addicted is highly-motivated to use, and their ability to make sound decisions regarding use is significantly impaired.
For this reason, those seeking recovery from heroin abuse or addiction are urged to undergo medical detox. They can be supervised around the clock by health providers to prevent relapse. Detox should be followed by participation in a comprehensive addiction treatment program that includes clinically-proven approaches to be beneficial for those undergoing the recovery process.
Getting Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin abuse and addiction can be devastating, life-threatening conditions that destroy an individual’s relationships, health, and emotional and physical well-being. Fortunately, however, intensive treatment is available for those who seek to recover once and for all.
Just Believe Recovery center features comprehensive programs that include evidence-based services, such as psychotherapy, counseling, group support, and much more. Our caring, highly-trained staff are dedicated to providing individualized support and treatment to each client and provide them with the tools they need to recover fully and sustain long-lasting health and well-being.