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Heroin Addiction
What is heroin?
Scope of heroin use
How heroin is used
Heroin's short-term effects
Heroin's long-term effects
Medical complications
The path to healing

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What is heroin?

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive drug. It is both the most abused and the most rapidly acting of the opiates. Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants. It is typically sold as a white or brownish powder or as the black, sticky substance known on the streets as "black tar heroin."

Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is "cut" with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Street heroin can also be cut with strychnine or other poisons. Because heroin abusers do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at risk of overdose or death. Heroin also poses special problems because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases that can occur from sharing needles or other injection equipment.

Scope of heroin use

According to the 1996 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.4 million people use heroin at some time in their lives. The survey report estimates that there were 141,000 new heroin users in 1995 and that there has been an increasing trend in new heroin use since 1992. A large proportion of these new users were smoking, snorting, or sniffing heroin, and most were under age 26.

How heroin is used

Heroin is usually injected, sniffed/snorted, or smoked. Typically, a heroin abuser may inject up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. Although smoking and sniffing heroin do not produce a "rush" as quickly or as intensely as intravenous injection, researchers have confirmed that all three forms of heroin administration are highly addictive.

 

Route of Administration Among Heroin Treatment Admissions in Selected Areas

Injection continues to be the predominant method of heroin use among addicted users seeking treatment; however, researchers have observed a shift in heroin use patterns, from injection to sniffing and smoking. In fact, sniffing/snorting heroin is now a widely reported means of taking heroin among users admitted for drug treatment.

With the shift in heroin abuse patterns comes an even more diverse group of users. Users over the age of 30 continue to be one of the largest user groups in most national data. However, several sources indicate an increase in new, young users across the country who are being lured by inexpensive, high-purity heroin that can be sniffed or smoked instead of injected. Heroin has also been appearing in more affluent communities.

Heroin's short-term effects

Abusers typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensation, a "rush." The intensity of the rush is a function of how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the natural opioid receptors. Heroin is particularly addictive because it enters the brain so rapidly. With heroin, the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itching. Heroin overdose is a particular risk on the street, where the amount and purity of the drug cannot be accurately known.

Heroin's long-term effects

One of the most detrimental long-term effects of heroin is addiction itself. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, as well as neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain. Heroin also produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are also powerful motivating factors for compulsive use and abuse. As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin abusers gradually spend more and more time and energy obtaining and using the drug. Once they are addicted, the heroin abuser's primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs. The drugs literally change their brains.

Physical dependence rapidly develops with higher doses of the drug. With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly.

Withdrawal may occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), and leg movements. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months.

Medical complications of chronic heroin use

Medical consequences of chronic heroin abuse include scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, and liver or kidney disease. Lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis) may result from the poor health condition of the abuser as well as from heroin's depressing effects on respiration. Many of the additives in street heroin may include substances that do not readily dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain.

Of course, sharing of injection equipment or fluids can lead to some of the most severe consequences of heroin abuse - infections with Hepatitis B and C, HIV, and a host of other bloodborne viruses, which drug abusers can then pass on to their sexual partners and children. For nearly one-third of Americans infected with HIV, injection drug use is a risk factor. In fact, drug abuse is the fastest growing vehicle for the spread of HIV in the nation. Heroin abuse can cause serious complications during pregnancy, including miscarriage and premature delivery.

The path to healing

A variety of effective treatments are available for heroin addiction. Treatment tends to be more effective when heroin abuse is identified early. The treatments that follow vary depending on the individual, but methadone, a synthetic opiate that blocks the effects of heroin and eliminates withdrawal symptoms, has a proven record of success for people addicted to heroin.

Methadone programs

Methadone treatment has been used effectively and safely to treat opioid addiction for more than 30 years. Properly prescribed, methadone is not intoxicating or sedating, and its effects do not interfere with ordinary activities such as driving a car. The medication is taken orally and it suppresses narcotic withdrawal for 24 to 36 hours. Patients are able to perceive pain and have emotional reactions. Most important, methadone relieves the craving associated with heroin addiction; craving is a major reason for relapse.

Naloxone and Naltrexone

Naloxone and naltrexone are medications that also block the effects of morphine, heroin, and other opiates. As antagonists, they are especially useful as antidotes. Naltrexone has long-lasting effects, ranging from 1 to 3 days, depending on the dose. Naltrexone blocks the pleasurable effects of heroin and is useful in treating some highly motivated individuals. Naltrexone has also been found to be successful in preventing relapse by former opiate addicts released from prison on probation.

Behavioral therapies

Although behavioral and pharmacologic treatments can be extremely useful when employed alone, science has taught us that integrating both types of treatments will ultimately be the most effective approach. There are many effective behavioral treatments available for heroin addiction. These can include residential and outpatient approaches. An important task is to match the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of the patient.

Several new behavioral therapies show particular promise as treatments for heroin addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapies are designed to help modify the patient's thinking, expectancies, and behaviors and to increase skills in coping with various life stressors. Both behavioral and pharmacological treatments help to restore a degree of normalcy to brain function and behavior.

READ MORE ABOUT:  Opiate Withdrawal with Buprenorphine »

For further information on treatment of heroin addiction, Contact us:
Serenity Lane Treatment Center for Alcohol & Other Drug Dependencies
616 East 16th Avenue Eugene, OR 97401
Phone: (541) 687-1110 Or Toll-Free 1-800-543-9905

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