What is heroin?
Heroin is classified as an opioid drug made from morphine and is naturally taken from poppy plants grown in Mexico, Columbia, Southwest and Southeast Asia. It can be a white or brown powder or even as a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin.
Heroin can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked. When it is mixed with crack cocaine the act is known as speedballing. Effects, other than the initial rush or euphoria feeling, are:
- Dry mouth
- Warm flush of skin
- Heavy feeling in arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Clouded mental function
- Drifting between conscious and semi-conscious
Signs of addiction
Heroin works by entering the brain and binding to the opioid receptors, particularly the ones associated with pain and pleasure and controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.
Long-term users of the drug may experience:
- collapsed veins for people who inject the drug
- damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort it
- infection of the heart lining and valves
- constipation and stomach cramping
- liver and kidney disease
- lung complications, including pneumonia
- mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
- sexual dysfunction for men
- irregular menstrual cycles for women
Sometimes heroin is mixed with sugar, starch, or powdered milk and they can clog blood vessels and cause permanent damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or the brain. For those who inject the drug, sharing drug equipment and having impaired judgement can lead to increased risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis. Both of these are transmitted through contact with bodily fluids or blood, which can happen when sharing needles. Hepatitis is the most common bloodborne infection in the U.S. Drug use can also lead to unprotected sex, which can lead to HIV.
OxyContin and Vicodin, which are prescription opioid medication, have similar effects as heroin and research indicates that if someone misuses these drugs, they may be led to heroin later. About 80 percent of people who reported using heroin said they used a prescription opioid first. However, less than four percent of people revealed in a national survey that they began using heroin within five years of abusing prescription pain medication. While opioid abuse is one factor, it does not appear to be the most-prominent reason for heroin use.
As with anything, each person will experience something slightly different in their withdrawal symptoms. For most people, it will last about one week. Chronic users may have effects that last as long as three or four weeks. Withdrawal can begin as early as four hours after the last dose, depending on how dependent the user is and how long they were using heroin.
If someone is addicted to heroin and stops using the drug abruptly they may have severe withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms—which can begin as early as those four hours after heroin was last taken—include:
- severe muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes with goosebumps
- uncontrollable leg movements
- severe cravings
During the early phase of withdrawal, between one and three days typically, symptoms can be painful or uncomfortable so relapse can occur during this time. This initial phase can have effects such as:
- panic attacks
This is usually the more-intense phase and after this first wave other effects like stomach cramping, muscle aches, shivers, and fatigue will occur for a few more days. Focusing recovery on exercise and eating right can help make it a little more bearable.
The long-term effects of heroin and opioid addiction on the brain is being studied and it has been shown that some loss of white matter is associated with heroin abuse and it may affect behavior control, response to stressful situations, and decision-making.
For detoxification, a medically supervised drug may be administered to help make the process less painful and to ease some of the discomfort.
Several options for this include:
Methadone: An opioid medicine that is used for severe pain but is also used for addiction. It can be taken as a tablet, liquid, or injection.
Buprenorphine: Also known as Suboxone or Subutex, these are ideal for treating withdrawal and can be used for maintenance in the future. Both methadone and buprenorphine work in a way that discourages abuse.
Naltrexone: FDA-approved that is not habit-forming. It helps patients prevent relapse by decreasing cravings and it prevents them from getting high if they do take more heroin again. It can only be used after someone has gone through detox so the patient must have stopped using heroin for several weeks or has had a medically assisted detox. It is the suggested next step after detox.
Naloxone: known as Narcan, it is not a treatment for addiction but can temporarily stop the effects of use. It is used by first responders and law enforcement on patients at the first sign of heroin or opioid overdose. If given naloxone for a suspected overdoes, it is critical that the person gets to an emergency room immediately.
A medically supervised detox at a rehab facility like our space in Arizona is highly recommended because the withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous and lead to things like lung infection or asphyxiation from aspirating vomit, and dehydration and possibly seizures from complications from excessive sweating and diarrhea.
Because every patient is different and has unique needs, our recovery programs cover a wide range of options based on individual assessment. Along with medicine, patients may benefit from inpatient rehab services where they receive cognitive behavior therapy, group sessions and support, exercise options and healthy lifestyle choices. Addiction affects your whole life, and your recovery will approach all aspects of your relationships, career, health, and psychological well-being.
Addiction treatment is not a quick and easy process but commitment and follow-through are key to getting your life back. Our staff can help you live the life you are meant to have, addiction-free.