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Heroin is an illicit and highly addictive drug. In spite of this, it is used by many people - with the addicts numbering into the millions - around the globe, most of whom are completely unable to overcome their urge and cravings to continue abusing the drug. Most users also know that stopping their abuse will only lead them to face the horrors that come with withdrawal.

Like morphine and opium, heroin is produced from the resin of the poppy plant. First, the milky and sap like opium is removed from the pods of the flowers of this plant before it is refined to create morphine. Further refining yields different forms of this drug.

In most cases, users inject heroin - which creates additional risks for them. As a direct result, most intravenous users of the substance face the danger of contracting infections and diseases like Hepatitis B and C and HIV over and above the pain and intensity of addiction.

Understanding Heroin

Heroin is an opioid substance produced from morphine - the natural drug created from the seed pods of the opium poppy plants growing in Southwest and Southeast Asia, Colombia, and Mexico.

The drug appears as a brown or white powder, as well as a black sticky drug that is commonly referred to as black tar heroin. On the street, it is known by a variety of names, including but not limited to smack, hell dust, horse, and big H.

Most people smoke, snort, sniff, or inject heroin. Others engage in speed balling where they mix it with cocaine to heighten the desired pleasurable effects of both substances.

Heroin Effects

Irrespective of the mode of use, heroin tends to get into the brain rather quickly. While there, it binds on the opioid receptors found in cells in different areas of the brain - particularly those that are responsible for controlling the feelings of pleasure and pain, as well as those that control breathing, sleeping, and heart rate.

a) Short-Term Effects

In the process, it creates a rush - which can be defined as a rush of euphoria or pleasure. However, the drug also comes with a number of other short term effects, which can include but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Dry mouth
  • Going on the nod, meaning that the user shifts from states of consciousness and semi-consciousness
  • Heavy feeling in the legs and arms
  • Nausea
  • Severe itching
  • Vomiting
  • Warm skin flushing

b) Long-Term Effects

If you abuse this substance over the long term, however, you might develop the following effects:

  • Abscesses (which are swollen pus-filled tissues)
  • Collapsed veins, which applies to intravenous users
  • Constipation
  • Damaged nasal tissue for those who snort or sniff the drug
  • Infections of the heart valves and lining
  • Irregular menstrual cycles in women
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Lung complications, such as pneumonia
  • Mental disorders, including antisocial personality disorder and depression
  • Sexual dysfunction in men

c) Other Effects

In some instances, heroin that is illicitly produced and sold on the street might contain additives like powdered milk, starch, and sugar. These additives might clog the blood vessels leading to the brain, kidneys, liver, and lungs - eventually causing permanent damage to these organs.

Additionally, if you share drug injection paraphernalia or having impaired judgement after using heroin might increase your risk of contracting a variety of infectious diseases - such as Hepatitis B and C and HIV.

These health complications are transmitted when you come into contact with bodily fluids and blood from people who are infected - a likely occurrence among people who share drug injection equipment such as needles.

Heroin And Prescription Opioids

Many prescription opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin come with effects that are quite similar to those generated by heroin. According to recent research findings, abusing these drugs might lead you to start using heroin. In fact, close to 80% of all Americans who use heroin - including those undergoing treatment for heroin addiction - report that they first started abusing prescription opioid pain relievers.

Heroin Overdose

Among the dangers of abusing heroin is that you can overdose on it. This will happen when you use enough of the substance to induce death or any other life-threatening reaction. In recent years, the incidences of heroin overdose have been increasing.

When such an overdose occurs, your breathing will slow down or stop altogether. This could lead to a significant decrease in the amount of oxygen going to your brain - a condition that is medically referred to as hypoxia.

Hypoxia, on the other hand, comes with a range of long- and short-term mental effects. It can also negatively impact your central nervous system, eventually leading to permanent brain damage and/or coma.

In most cases, opioid overdoses are treated using Naloxone. The drug works by quickly binding itself to opioid receptors and thereafter blocking some of the more adverse effects of opioid drugs like heroin.

At times, your doctor might have to administer more than one dose of the drug to kick-start your breathing. This is why it is so important that you get to an emergency room or to a doctor to ensure that you receive any additional support you need so that your heroin overdose does not turn fatal.

Today, you can also purchase Naloxone because it is available as a nasal spray, handheld auto-injector, and injectable solution. People can use the nasal spray and the auto-injector versions of the drug to save someone during a heroin overdose.

This availability of Naloxone is largely attributed to the rising numbers of deaths arising from opioid overdose. The high incidence eventually led to increased public health efforts to ensure that at-risk individuals (and their families and loved ones) had the drug at hand. Other people in the community and first responders might also have Naloxone.

Heroin Addiction

Heroin is among the most addictive of intoxicating substances on the black market today. Those who use it regularly eventually develop tolerance to the drug. This means that they start needing higher and more frequent doses to achieve the effects they desire.

Continued heroin use, however, causes a SUD (or substance use disorder) as well as related issues like health problems and increasing failure and reluctance to meet one's responsibilities at school, home, or work. In most cases, SUDs range from severe to mild, with the most severe form coming as an addiction.

Once you are addicted to heroin, you will have a hard time quitting it. This means that when you stop using it abruptly, you may experience severe withdrawal. The symptoms of such a withdrawal - which often start showing as early as 4 -6 hours after you last took the drug - may include:

  • Cold flashes accompanied by goose bumps
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • Severe bone and muscle pain
  • Severe cravings for heroin
  • Inability to sleep
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Vomiting

Opioid addiction also has various long term effects on the brain. According to recent studies, long term users of the drug might experience a loss in the white matter in their brain. This eventually affects their behavioral control, decision making capabilities, and responses in stressful situations.

Signs And Symptoms Of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is an opioid, meaning that it will attach itself to the brain's opioid receptors. By so doing, this opioid drug will interact with these receptors and cause the activation of the reward and pleasure system of the brain. As a direct result, heroin will temporarily flood your brain with feelings of happiness and euphoria.

However, continued use of the substance may lead to the development of tolerance, at which point you will start taking greater amounts of heroin to achieve the same levels of pleasure that you have become accustomed to.

As your drug use escalates - to counter the growing tolerance, for instance - you may develop dependence which in turn will result in withdrawal symptoms when you reduce or discontinue use. This will typically happen from a few hours since your last use to as long as 7 days. However, symptoms will start peaking anytime from 24 to 48 hours.

To a large extent, the physiological processes of heroin abuse, dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal will characterize your addiction. In most cases, you may experience short term effects even after taking a single dose - effects that could last for a couple of hours.

The duration and intensity of these effects vary from one person to another and may depend on various factors, including the mode of use (snorting, smoking, or injection) and the duration of abuse.

That said, some of the signs and symptoms of heroin abuse and addiction include but are not necessarily limited to:

a) Physical Symptoms

  • Bruises or scabs as a result of skin picking
  • Cravings
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Headache
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased sleep
  • Inhibitory behavior
  • Loss of self-control
  • Malnutrition
  • Slurred speech
  • Track marks
  • Weight loss

b) Psychological Symptoms

  • Delusions
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Emotional numbing
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to think and reason clearly
  • Personality changes
  • Psychosis
  • c) Mood Symptoms
  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings

d) Behavioral Symptoms

  • Changes in normal patterns of behavior
  • Drug-seeking behaviors
  • Failure to meet and fulfil most of your major life responsibilities
  • Hiding drugs in a variety of places
  • Inability to interact in a normal way with others
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Lack of taking protective measures
  • Loss of relationships
  • Lying
  • Nodding off
  • Problems at school or work
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Violence

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Although the need for heroin addiction treatment and rehabilitation is so evident, most addicts do not look for it. Eventually, it causes some of them to lose their lives or experience dangerous and permanent changes in their bodies and brains.

In most cases, however, those who seek treatment will undergo the following:

a) Assessment and Testing

First, a variety of assessments, questionnaires, and tests may be administered to the client. This process is designed to uncover the extent and severity of the heroin addiction as well as to create a highly personalized detox and treatment plan for them.

b) Detox

During treatment, you will be required to abruptly stop abusing heroin. However, this may cause you to experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms, the severity of which will depend on your duration of use, the doses you were using, and the existence of any other co-occurring mental and physical health conditions, as well as any polydrug use.

For some, withdrawal might persist for several months. Research now shows that dope sickness, which is what happens when you stop abusing heroin, is one of the reasons most addicts do not seek treatment.

However, even though these withdrawal symptoms might prove to be uncomfortable, they are not quite as life threatening as withdrawing from other intoxicating and mind altering substances like alcohol. Still, you need to undergo detox in an accredited facility to reduce your risk of relapse, which may happen as you try to alleviate the discomfort of withdrawal.

c) Rehabilitation

After a successful detox, you will typically undergo rehabilitation and treatment for heroin abuse and addiction. Most of the effective treatment programs integrate both pharmacological treatments (also known as medically assisted treatment) and behavioral therapy in their rehabilitation.

If your case of addiction is particularly severe, the best fit might be residential or inpatient treatment. Here, you will be provided with all the help you need to meet and counter both the psychological and physical aspects of your addiction - which are usually hard to beat because you might start craving the euphoria derived from abusing heroin.

Additionally, treatment will deal with all the underlying reasons for your starting to use the drug. In the process, you will work with highly qualified medical and addiction specialization personnel to uncover all the factors behind your addiction.

Overall, the only safe way to overcome your heroin dependence, tolerance, abuse, and addiction is through intensive detox and rehabilitation at an accredited and licensed facility. What is more, the earlier you start on treatment, the sooner you can beat your addiction.

Find Resources

If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, it is imperative that you look for professional help as soon as you possibly can. However, you might not know where to start or the options that are open to you. Similarly, you may have little to no idea about the differences between the different treatment facilities and the programs they have in store for their patients.

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