Heroin is an opiate drug that is made from morphine. Morphine is a substance that occurs in the opium poppy and is a powerful pain relief and analgesic drug. In other forms, morphine is still used in the medical profession. Heroin, however, is an illegal drug and considered one of the most abused drugs worldwide. Heroin use is problematic largely due the the fact that a tolerance to the drug develops rapidly and as a result users need to use more of the drug to get the same feelings. Users often experience intense cravings for the drug and the feelings associated with it. It has been reported that over 20 per cent of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.
Heroin itself has relatively few serious side effects which means that chronic use does not produce organ damage in the same way as alcohol or other drugs. Issues arise from the way the drug is administered, the influence of adulterant substances and the potency/purity of the drug that is bought on the streets. Heroin does have a very high potential for chemical dependence and accidental overdose.
Heroin is also known as smack, horse, H, black tar, junk, dope and skag. The potency and purity of heroin can range from 10-60 per cent when bought on the street and most commonly cut with adulterant substances such as glucose, vitamins, amphetamines or other powders. Many users will describe stories of injecting or smoking drugs that are sold as heroin but are not in fact heroin. There are a number of different varieties of heroin which include pure white powder, granulated powders that range from white to dark brown and a hashish-looking heroin known as black tar. Black tar is a form of heroin that is common in the United States that has to be dissolved before injecting.
Heroin is an opiate which work by attaching to proteins in the brain, spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract called opioid receptors. Heroin attaches to opioid receptors quicker than other opiates which is why many users report of a euphoric rush when they take the drug. Heroin has been found to affect the brain regions in the brain that mediate pleasure which is why the drug invokes feelings of warmth, contentment, satisfaction and drowsiness. The drug has an effect on the central nervous system which slows cardiac function and breathing.
Heroin users describe many different feelings when they use which can be influenced by the purity or potency of the drug, the set-setting, last use, current state of mind or other people. Typically, users will describe a rush of euphoria followed by a sleepy and comfortable feeling that is often associated with nodding off to sleep. Many people liken the experience of heroin to being in a dream state, a slight anesthetic feeling. Some users say that it is a very relaxed and calm feeling that they associate with taking the drug, it reduces their anxieties and worries but it is also associated with a lack of concentration. Most people who take the drug will feel nausea and vomit when they take heroin as well as a dry mouth, flushing of the skin, heaviness of the extremities and a drowsiness.
Regular and long term users face more serious and complicated health issues as a result of their drug use. Most users will become severely constipated and experience sexual dysfunction. Women will have irregular periods and can face difficulties in getting pregnant. Intravenous users can cause damage to their veins and skin abscesses, are at high risk of getting tetanus, hepatitis or HIV as a result of injecting. Individuals who smoke heroin may develop pneumonia, tuberculosis or other serious lung conditions due to smoking the drug. Because of the presence of adulterant substances, soft tissue infections, liver and kidney disease, lowered immune system and increase vulnerability to secondary health problems. Sharing needles or other drug-equipment will increase the risk of contracting HIV, Hepatitis and other blood-borne viruses which can be passed on to other family members, friends or drug users.
Treatment for heroin addiction is a difficult process and many addicts may try a number of different treatments before successfully getting off the drugs. Withdrawals are a serious and painful effect of stopping heroin use and the symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweats, body aches, tremors, agitation and aggression, hallucination and seizures.
Medical detoxification is one method used in treatment for heroin addiction. Doctors will often prescribe clonidine or buprenorphone to individuals undergoing medical detox. These drugs are designed to alleviate or minimize some of the painful symptoms of withdrawing. Methodone is another regularly prescribed drug for heroin addicts.
Methadone is a widely used medication that is prescribed to individuals who are getting treatment for heroin addiction. This drug is a synthetic opiate that is taken orally and designed to reduce the desires and cravings for heroin. Methadone is taken in conjunction with other opiate treatment programs such as group counseling, social services and medical support.
Overdosing on heroin is a very common but potentially fatal side effect of taking the drug. Overdosing on the drug occurs when the dose taken is greater than a typical dose which can occur very easily due to the range in purity and potency of heroin. Some users have also overdosed when they have had a break from taking heroin and try to return to their regular dosage. An overdose is instantaneous and many people do not have time to get help before they become unconscious. Harm minimization steps should be taken such as never injecting alone and always testing the potency before taking a large amount.
When a person overdoses from heroin, their breathing will slow, their skin will be cool to touch and they will have a low body temperature. Twitching, gurgling, vomiting and blue tips of fingers and toes are also common symptoms. Immediate medical intervention is required because some people will die as a result of overdosing on heroin. The individual should not, despite common myths to the contrary, be injected with milk, salt water or amphetamines to reduce the effect the heroin is having. They should also not be put into a shower as this can result in drowning and things should not be put into their mouth to keep it open as they may have a seizure and choke on the item.
Individuals who are addicted to heroin cannot be classed as a certain type of person. Some individuals face severe health issues as a result of their problem such as hepatitis or HIV. They may experience homelessness or other social issues. Other users are chronic long term users who do not struggle with these types of problems and manage to lead perfectly normal lives.
Junkies are one type of heroin user that is often the most familiar in the media and news. Junkies are characterized by chronic and severe dependence to heroin that is often combined with health, social and familial issues. Some users will be involved in criminal activities such as theft or prostitution as a way to finance their drug dependence. Homelessness, sexually transmitted diseases, tetanus, hepatitis and HIV are just some of the health implications these users may face. An example of this type of heroin user can be seen in the movie Trainspotting which shows a group of heroin-addicted individuals in England. These users are involved in junky activities and their physical appearance shows the impact of the drug. It should be noted that this stereotype does not represent all users.
Many heroin dependent people live normal lives, have families and successful jobs. Their addiction is often a secret to those around them and they struggle with the influence of the drug on their lives. Because of the addictive nature of the drug, many of these heroin-dependent people could have been long-term users and had the addiction for a decade or more. Some addicts use the drug socially, or recreationally. Overcoming dependence on heroin is a difficult and long path that may take many years.
Heroin was first discovered in the 1870s when chemist C.R Alder Wright was synthesizing opium to find a more powerful substance than morphine. Despite the discovery, it wasn’t until 20 years later in the 1890’s that the Bayer company began commercial production of the drug as a treatment for respiratory disorders, dysentery and pain relief. Clinical trials showed that the drug was very successful and was prescribed to treat many ailments. However, the trials soon showed that tolerance to the drug was very rapid and addiction to the drug a serious issue.
In the 1910’s the problem of opium addiction was a world-wide issue. Some patients who were seeking to get off opium were prescribed heroin which these addicts soon realized was a stronger drug that produced the euphoria easier. Addicts soon realized that intravenous administration of the drug was the best route to the best high. But the legal loop holes to this high were soon closed with severe regulations stopping the production, use and distribution of the drug by the 1930’s. These laws did not quell the use of the drug though as the manufacturing and distribution moved to illegal dealers.