The Effects and Dangers of Heroin Abuse

Heroin is a widely-used, fast-acting and highly addictive illegal substance. Heroin is classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug, meaning this drug possesses extremely addictive qualities and is highly dangerous when used regularly. Heroin is derived from opium, a natural juice extracted from the seed of the poppy plant.

Pure heroin is a white powder that can be smoked, snorted or injected intravenously. Heroin purchased on the street may vary in color from white to dark brown, depending on the purity. The drug has a sedative effect and is sometimes used following the use of other drugs, such as Ecstasy or speed, in order to relieve the comedown from an invigorating high. Heroin in classified in the same drug family as codeine and morphine and has the same “chill-out” effects.

The Side Effects of Heroin Abuse

The human body is filled with receptors for endorphins, the natural pain-killing substance produced by the body to alleviate shock or physical pain. Heroin is a natural painkiller that can attach to endorphin receptors and provide a pleasurable sensation and sense of well-being. Heroin amplifies the receptors’ painkilling effects, so the sense of pleasure is much stronger than the body is typically accustomed to.

Intravenous injection is the best method for providing a quick onset of pleasure. The peak of euphoria can be reached in seven or eight seconds. Smoking or snorting heroin will produce a peak in approximately ten minutes. Users may experience the following symptoms at peak onset:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • dry mouth
  • warm, flushed skin
  • heavy feeling in the extremities
  • drowsiness
  • clouded or impaired mental functioning
  • severe itching
  • difficulty breathing

Once the peak has subsided, the user will feel very relaxed and comfortable, since the central nervous system has been sedated. The individual will also be left feeling drowsy for several hours and may have an appearance of being asleep while actually awake.

The Dangers of Heroin Abuse

Frequent use of heroin can lead to dependence on the drug. Research estimates that 23 percent of regular heroin users become dependent. A regular user can experience withdrawal symptoms in as little as two or three days after a use. As an individual becomes dependent, tolerance is established, and each use requires an increased amount of the substance to reach an acceptable peak. Tolerance increases the risk of overdose. Most users buy heroin that is mixed with other substances. At times, heroin is sold on the street in a pure form. If a dependent user with a high tolerance uses a pure form, overdose will occur and will most likely be fatal. Chronic users can also develop the following complications:

  • collapsed veins
  • infection of the heart lining
  • abcesses
  • liver, kidney or pulmonary failure
  • clogged blood vessels causing permanent organ damage

Since heroin is most commonly injected intravenously, the risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis B or C is extremely high. Many individuals share the needles used to inject the drug, so contagious diseases are often spread on the needles. Substances that heroin is often mixed with, such as talcum powder, starch or chalk, may contain bacteria. The bacteria will then spread throughout the user’s body and cause infections.

Treatment for Heroin Abuse

Heroin addicts who seek treatment will begin with detoxification. The user may be treated with medications like methadone or buprenorphine to ease withdrawal symptoms and allow the addict to feel the same sense of pleasure produced by heroin without the dangerous side effects. Typically, users are treated with a combination of drugs and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Therapy helps modify an addict’s behavior and build coping skills. Treatment can help reduce cravings, eliminate the focus on the drug and improve the addict’s overall physical health. Heroin is one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs distributed in the United States. With proper assistance, addicts can overcome dependence and help remove the “chill-out drug” from the streets of America.

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