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Heroin: A Matter of Life and Death

Heroin: A Matter of Life and Death

Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, which is obtained from the opium poppy plant. When morphine is combined with acetic anhydride, the end product is heroin, which can be up to 8 times as potent as morphine. (Because acetic anhydride is used for making heroin, it is restricted in many countries.)

Heroin is primarily manufactured in South America, Southeast and Southwest Asia, and Mexico. Although Afghanistan produces the majority of the world's heroin, South American heroin has become the most prevalent type available in the U.S.

The use of heroin has been increasing in recent years among men and women, in most age groups, and all income levels. Some of the greatest increases have occurred in women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes.

·         Heroin-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010

·         From 2014 to 2015, heroin overdose death rates increased by 20.6%, with nearly 13,000 people dying in 2015

·         In 2015, males aged 25-44 had the highest heroin death rate at 13.2 per 100,000, which was an increase of 22.2% from 2014

The strongest risk factor for starting heroin use is past misuse of prescription opioids. (Opioids, derived from the opium poppy, include heroin and prescription pain pills like morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone.)

Heroin’s appearance may range from a white to dark brown powder, or it may be a black, sticky substance called black tar heroin. Users can inject (mainlining), sniff, snort, or smoke it. Speedballing is when people mix heroin with crack cocaine. Street names for heroin include:

·         Big H

·         Brown sugar

·         Dope

·         Hell dust

·         Horse

·         Junk

·         Muc

·         Skag

·         Smack

Effects of Heroin: Heroin is a “downer” or depressant that affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain.

Short-term effects: Appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours.

·         After an injection of heroin, the user feels a surge of euphoria (“rush”), accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and heavy extremities

·         Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod”, an alternating wakeful and drowsy state. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to depression of the central nervous system

·         Other effects: slowed and slurred speech, slow gait, constricted pupils (pinpoint pupils), droopy eyelids, impaired night vision, vomiting and constipation, and severe itching.

Long-term effects:

·         Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, skin infections, and liver and kidney disease

·         Pulmonary complications, including pneumonia, may result from the poor health condition of the abuser, as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration. Because it depresses the respiratory system, many die from forgetting to breath

·         Street heroin may have additives that do not readily dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain

·         Insomnia

·         Damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort it

·         Mental disorders

·         Sexual dysfunction for men

·         Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Addictive properties:

·         People who use heroin regularly are likely to develop a physical dependence

·         Withdrawal symptoms may begin within 6 to 24 hours of stopping the drug. Symptoms may include sweating, anxiety, depression, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, fever, drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, cold flashes with goose bumps, and kicking movements

·         Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last does and subside after about a week. Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health can be fatal


·         Injection poses the greatest risk of lethal overdose by enabling large amounts of heroin into the bloodstream at once

·         Smoking and snorting heroin can also result in overdose, especially if a non-tolerant user ingests a large amount of potent heroin and/or combines it with other depressant drugs, such as alcohol

·         Symptoms of a heroin overdose include slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma and possibly death

Heroin Overdose

Naloxone is an opioid antidote medication. When a person is overdosing, breathing can slow down or stop, and it can very hard to wake them from this state. Naloxone is a medication that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. If given to a person who has not taken opioids, it will have no effect on them. It can be given by nose spray or injected into the muscle, under the skin, or directly into the vein.

Naloxone is available without a written prescription in 46 states. Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska, and Wyoming require a prescription.

Should you feel the need to purchase naxolone, FIRST consult with the pharmacist on how to use it, what the side effects are, and what can be expected after the dose the given. If you are even thinking about giving this medication, call 9-1-1.

Rehabilitation Treatment Options

Effective treatments for heroin addiction include behavioral and pharmacological (medications) approaches. Both help to restore a degree of normalcy to brain function and behavior. Although each type of treatment can be extremely useful when utilized alone, research shows that for some people, integrating both types of treatment is the most effective approach.


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