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Understanding Heroin: Risks, Side Effects, and How it Works

  1. About Heroin

    Heroin is an illegal opioid drug that was first introduced as an upgrade to morphine in 1898 (1). Morphine is naturally derived from the opium poppy plant that grows in many countries. Heroin is much stronger than morphine and can lead to a number of side effects.

    Heroin is usually injected into the veins and can also be smoked or snorted. It produces an intense sense of euphoria and relaxation. It can also be extremely dangerous and can have potentially lethal side effects including overdose and addiction.

    In 2021 a study was performed that estimated around 1.1 million people in the United States over the age of 12 reported using heroin(2).

    As heroin is an extremely addictive and dangerous drug and has severe consequences, it is important to have an understanding of it. Due to its addictive properties, it can have devastating effects on the physical and mental health of a person and affect relationships and overall well-being. 

    Heroin is also associated with an increased risk of suffering from infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis as well as overdose and death.

    Having an understanding of the drug, an individual can make informed decisions about their behavior and seek appropriate treatment and support if needed.

  2. History of Heroin

    • Discovery and Early Medical Use of Heroin

      Heroin was first synthesized in the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer in 1874. It was developed as a potential replacement for Morphine which was widely used as a painkiller and was highly addictive. It was marketed by Bayer as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and was used as a cough suppressant and pain reliever. It was prescribed by doctors for various medical conditions including respiratory illnesses, tuberculosis, and pain reliever. Gradually it was discovered to be more addictive than morphine as people who used it got addicted to it.

      By early 1900 it got banned in many countries. Today it is illegal in most parts of the world and is classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the United States, which means it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse and addiction (3).

  3. How Does Heroin Work?

    • What Does Heroin Do to the Brain and Body

      Heroin affects the brain by binding with the opioid receptors in the brain and other parts of the body. These receptors are involved in the pain relief, reward, and regulation of various functions of the body. Heroin on binding with these receptors produces a powerful rush of pleasure and euphoria. This can cause addiction as well as other health problems (6).

      In the brain, heroin binds with the opioid receptors in the limbic system responsible for regulating emotions and the reward system. This drug increases the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This leads to intense feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

      Heroin also affects the respiratory system, digestive system, and immune system it can lead to physiological effects such as:

      Repeated use of heroin leads to tolerance, which means the body becomes less sensitive to the drug’s effect over time. This increases its use and also increases the risk of addiction.

    • Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Heroin

      The short-term effects of heroin include:

      • Severe itching
      • Nausea and vomiting
      • Dry mouth
      • Warm flushing of the skin
      • Clouded mental functioning
      • Reverting back and forth between semiconsciousness and conscious state
      • Heavy feeling in legs and arms

      Long-term effects of heroin include:

      • Insomnia
      • Liver and kidney disease
      • Constipation and stomach cramping
      • Sexual dysfunction in males
      • Lung complications
      • There is damage to the inside of the nose
      • Infection of the heart lining
      • Skin abscess
      • Irregular menstrual cycle
      • The veins collapse as a person injects heroin repeatedly
  4. Risks and Side Effects of Heroin

    Heroin can lead to serious risks and side effects:

    • Overdose and Death: Heroin can lead to overdose and cause respiratory depression, coma, and death. The risk increases when heroin is taken along with other drugs and alcohol.
    • Infectious Diseases: Heroin increases the risk of infectious diseases including HIV, hepatitis B and C, and bacterial infections. When injecting heroin and sharing the needling the chances of transmission of diseases increases.
    • Mental Health Issue: Heroin can lead to a range of mental conditions including depression, anxiety, and psychosis. The issues can be exacerbated by the effects of the drug on the brain.
    • Physical Health Issues: There is a range of health conditions including respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal problems that can occur due to increased use of heroin.
    • Addiction: Heroin can lead to addiction and cause severe physical and psychological dependence. It can have severe consequences on the health of an individual’s overall health.
    • Legal Consequences: The use of heroin is illegal in most parts of the world. Using it can lead to imprisonment and fine.

    The risk and side effects associated with heroin make it a highly dangerous and potentially lethal drug.

  5. Heroin Addiction

    • How Does Heroin Addiction Develop?

      Heroin addiction develops over time and may be influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors. On using heroin, a surge of dopamine is produced in the brain creating an intense feeling of euphoria.

      Repeated use of heroin leads to changes in the brain reward system making it harder for an individual to feel pleasure in the activities or experiences.

      Heroin addiction can also be affected by environmental and social factors such as trauma and peer pressure.

      Key stages of development of heroin addiction include:

      • Initial Use: This is the first time a person uses heroin that is out of curiosity or addiction.
      • Regular use: A person is categorized under this group when the intake of heroin is regular and in larger amounts to get the desired effects.
      • Tolerance: This is when the body gets less sensitive to the effects of the drug leading to a need to increase doses to achieve the desired effects.
      • Dependence: This is when the body adapts to the presence of drugs and the person experiences withdrawal symptoms.
      • Addiction: A person experiences strong cravings for heroin and continues using it despite its negative consequences.

      The process of heroin addiction is influenced by a range of biological, psychological, and social factors. It is important to seek help from a professional if you know someone who is struggling with heroin addiction.

    • Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction

      To treat heroin addiction a combination of mental health services and medications are used. These can help the individual overcome addiction and achieve long-term recovery. The common treatment options include:

      • Detoxification: As the person stops the use of heroin this process safely managed withdrawal symptoms. It is done under medical supervision and can involve the use of medication to manage withdrawal symptoms.
      • Medication-Assisted Treatment: It involves the use of medications including methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone (2). These medications reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms and help an individual stay in recovery.
      • Behavioral Therapy: In these coping skills are taught to manage cravings and avoid relapse. It includes cognitive behavior therapy, contingency management, or motivational interviewing.
      • Support Groups: Support groups can be helpful as they provide support and encourage an individual toward recovery.
      • Inpatient Treatment: This involves staying in a residential treatment center for a period of time, which is mostly 30-90 days to receive treatment and support.
      • Outpatient Treatment: This involves attending therapy sessions and support groups while living at home. It is a less intensive treatment and uses individuals with less severe addiction.

      Treatment of heroin addiction mostly involves a combination of the above-mentioned options (4).

  6. Current Use of Heroin

    • Current Trends and Statistics for the Use of Heroin

      The use of heroin remains a significant public health concern worldwide as millions of people are known to use this drug each year.

      Global trends and patterns that can be observed for heroin usage are:

      • Increase in use amongst younger people with more people becoming addicted to the drug in their teens. This can be concerning as younger people are more vulnerable to health risks and other negative impacts.
      • An increase in the use of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl can be more dangerous.
      • Additionally, the health risks associated with heroin use is also linked with a range of social and economic problem including crime, unemployment, and poverty (5).
    • Impact of Use of Heroin on Society and Communities

      The use of heroin impacts society and community in several ways:

      • Health Risks: The health risks associated with the use of heroin not only impacts the individual but the families and communities as well.
      • Crime: Drugs can contribute to crime and violence in many communities including drug trafficking, prostitution, and violent crimes.
      • Economic Impact: The cost of heroin use extends beyond the health risks and criminal activity associated with the drug.
      • Stigma: It is observed people who use heroin often face stigma and discrimination from their communities and society at large, making it more difficult to seek support.

      The impact of heroin use on society and communities is complex. One needs a comprehensive approach while addressing the problem.

  7. Conclusion

    Heroin is a drug that is used for recreational purposes and is highly addictive. It brings in the feelings of euphoria. It also leads to unpleasant side effects including nausea, vomiting, and itching.

    Misusing heroin may lead to opioid use disorder which may lead to increased tolerance to heroin, which means it needs to be taken in larger doses to get the same effect.

    People may experience withdrawal symptoms if the use of heroin is suddenly stopped. If a person takes large doses of this drug, it may cause an overdose and may even lead to death.

    Prevention, harm reduction, and support are the keys for an individual struggling with the problems of heroin addiction.

Also Read:

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:May 2, 2023

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