What Is Heroin?
Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that quickly attaches to certain molecules on brain cells known as opioid receptors. Since these receptors are located on the brain, spinal cord, and lungs, heroin causes a variety of physical sensations all throughout the body. Heroin can affect heart rate, breathing, and sleeping, along with bodily responses to pain and pleasure. After repeated use, the drug will severely impact brain function.
According to one study, 80% of people who have abused heroin started by abusing prescription opioids. Prescription painkillers are habit-forming substances and provide effects similar to heroin. Considering heroin is often cheaper and easily accessible compared to prescription painkillers, this is not a surprising statistic.
Since needle injection is one of the most common forms of use, heroin users must be highly cautious of contracting HIV, Hepatitis B, or other viruses. These diseases can be transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids. Recently, heroin has been found to have traces of fentanyl, with most users being completely unaware until an overdose occurs.
What Are Common Street Names For Heroin?
Popular names for heroin include:
- Big H
- Black Tar
- White China
- Hell Dust
What Does Heroin Look Like?
Heroin’s appearance can highly vary depending on geographic location, how processed it is, and what the drug is mixed with. In other instances, heroin can come in the form of a tablet or capsule.
On the East Coast of the U.S., heroin is normally found in its white powder form. The white powder heroin is considered the purest form and inexpensive. Oftentimes, dealers will combine heroin with cutting agents like sugar, baking soda, or other drugs to increase their supply and profit.
Black tar heroin is typically found on the West Coast of the U.S. As its name suggests, black tar heroin is usually sticky but can also come in a hard coal-like form. The color can range from brown to reddish hue. Brown powder heroin is rare, but sometimes preferred because it has a higher purity than black tar heroin.
How Is Heroin Used?
Depending on the drug’s appearance, heroin can be injected, smoked, or snorted. Many users favor injecting the drug rather than other methods because once heroin enters the bloodstream, its effects are felt almost immediately.
Most white powder heroin dissolves quickly in water, making it easily injectable. Black tar heroin is dangerous since injecting this form of heroin can cause veins to become inflamed and hardened. Brown powder heroin is usually smoked or snorted.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Heroin?
Heroin is a fast-acting opioid that makes users feel a “rush” or sense of euphoria almost immediately. Some individuals take the drug to fight insomnia, as heroin use can lead to drowsiness. Heroin can also cause unwanted short-term effects such as:
- Dry mouth
- Respiratory depression
- Slowed breathing
- Mental fogginess
- Decreased heart rate
Why Is Heroin Harmful?
Heroin quickly enters a person’s system, binding to opioid receptors in the brain and throughout the body and wreaking havoc on the user’s mind. Because of this, heroin has a high potential for addiction, causing those who use the opioid repeatedly to become physically dependent on it.
Heroin is manufactured across the world and processed in different ways with a variety of additives and ingredients. As a result, drug users may think they are taking the same amount of heroin as they did in the past, but accidentally overdose because the potency is higher. Fentanyl, carfentanil, and other harmful drugs could also be mixed into the heroin batch, increasing potency. With all of this uncertainty, heroin users never truly know how much of the drug they are taking and what effect it will have on them.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse?
Repeated heroin misuse can lead to drug addiction and health problems, including:
- Liver disease
- Chronic pneumonia
- Blood clots, stroke, heart attack
- Abscesses or other soft-tissue infections
- Kidney disease
- Collapsed veins
- Respiratory depression
- Sexual dysfunction
What Are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?
Continued heroin abuse can drastically alter the brain’s chemistry, causing a dangerous dependence on the drug. Paraphernalia associated with heroin can include burnt spoons, plastic bags, syringes, dark and sticky residue, and more. Some common psychological and physical signs of heroin addiction include:
Psychological and Behavioral Signs
- Unnatural euphoria
- Dry mouth
- Weight loss
- Extreme itching
- Respiratory infections
- Slow heart rate
- Track marks from needles
Many users also experience a drug-induced state of going in and out of consciousness, known as “nodding off.” Users have felt as though they are in a hypnotic state on the edge of consciousness. These episodes can be particularly dangerous because they leave users more susceptible to injuries and accidentally harming themselves.
What Does a Heroin Overdose Look Like?
Because it is almost impossible for users to know the potency of the heroin they are consuming or predict how their bodies will react, heroin overdoses are common. Heroin is an extremely powerful drug, and for some, just one small amount can lead to an overdose. This is particularly true when combined with other drugs or alcohol. Signs of heroin overdose include:
- Clammy skin
- Discolored tongue
- Low blood pressure and weak pulse
- Intense drowsiness
- Slow and shallow breathing
- Blueish tint to lips, skin, and nails
Loss of consciousness and respiratory arrest are common during a heroin overdose. Immediate medical attention is required. For many, naloxone, a medication designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, can be lifesaving. Naloxone is sold under the name “Narcan.” Knowing how to use Narcan properly could save a life. In many cases, multiple shots of naloxone are necessary to revive the overdose victim.
Heroin overdoses can cause long-term brain damage or lead to a coma. Even if the individual has been revived with naloxone, additional medical treatment is needed.
How to Use Narcan
How Is Heroin Addiction Treated?
Due to heroin’s hold on the mind and body, medically monitored detox is a necessary first step in treating heroin addiction. As the body rids itself of toxic substances, severe cravings and withdrawals can occur. Detoxing under the supervision of a health professional helps to prevent relapses and increases the individual’s comfort during the detox process. In many cases, doctors can prescribe medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms. These approved medications work through the same opioid receptors in the brain that heroin attaches to, but are safer and allow individuals to focus on addressing the psychological components of their substance use disorder. Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- Severe muscle aches
- Nausea and vomiting
After quitting, the body will go through a number of readjustments, such as the brain balancing out endorphins and dopamine levels. While detox helps to address the physical impact that addiction has had on the body, individuals who complete detox should participate in drug counseling through either inpatient (residential), outpatient, or medication-assisted treatment. Rehabilitation programs help individuals to further understand their addiction, relearn healthy behaviors, and gain recovery maintenance (“relapse prevention”) tools.
While clinical treatments are the cornerstone of addiction treatment, supplementary wellness therapies can help fortify an individual’s foundation for recovery and better prepare them for life after treatment. Those recovering from heroin addiction can particularly benefit from holistic therapies that help the brain and the body recuperate. For example, individuals who used heroin to self-medicate can experience pain relief through acupuncture instead. Users who became dependent on heroin as a solution for their sleeplessness can alternatively combat their insomnia through sleep education. Those suffering from the bodily damage they sustained through their heroin use can rebuild their physical health through cardio and weightlifting.
For more therapeutic activities that encourage mental, physical, and spiritual healing, explore our Wellness page.