Heroin, as well as drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, derive from the poppy flower. Opiates were onces used to treat everything from headaches to low energy, but a surge in heroin abuse in the early 20th century eventually gave rise to the criminalization of the drug. Opiates, though, are still widely available and routinely prescribed. This drug group is highly addictive and packs a powerful side effect punch. Heroin and opiates are the leading cause of drug overdose in the United States, and these dangerous drugs give rise to nearly half a million emergency room visits each year.
Heroin and Opiates: The Basics
Poppy-derived drugs come in two basic classes. Opiates are drugs such as morphine and heroin that are derived directly from the poppy, while opioids are semi-synthetic drugs with chemical properties similar to opiates. Addiction experts often use the two terms interchangeably.
Heroin use reached its apotheosis in the United States in the mid-1990s, even making its way into the mainstream as designers touted “heroin chic” fashions. As overdose deaths crept up, though, drug intervention programs were steadily able to combat heroin abuse. Today, though, heroin abuse is yet again creeping up, particularly in the Northwest United States. In early 2014, heroin and other opiates killed famed actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Heroin can be smoked, injected, snorted, or even eaten, but injection remains the most popular delivery mechanism. This means that track marks on the arms, bruising, and ruptured veins are a telltale sign of heroin abuse. Most other opiates and opioids, by contrast, are taken in pill form, though some users crush the drugs and then snort or inject them. Heroin goes by a variety of street names, including H, smack, thunder, skag, horse, and brown sugar. Other opiates go by a variety of names and abbreviations, and local dealers may even design and market unique “recipes” for these drugs.
How Heroin and Opiates Affect the Body
Heroin and opiates are narcotic depressants, which means they slow down the functioning of your central nervous system. This leads to a pleasant feeling of well-being that can be powerfully addictive for people who struggle with depression, anxiety, and mental illness. Opioids also block many pain signals in the brain, which is why they’re popular for post-surgical pain, toothaches, and broken bones. For people who struggle with chronic pain, the draw of these drugs can be overwhelming.
The immediate effects of heroin and opiate use include:
- Feelings of euphoria
- Emotional disconnection that can sometimes look like depression
- Insensitivity to pain
- Impaired judgment
- Increased feelings of affection and love
- Food cravings
- Muscle tension
- Blurred vision
- A brief “rush” following the initial administration of the drug
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chills or sweating
For most users, the unpleasant short-term effects of marijuana use are balanced by the drug’s powerful pleasant effects. Thus bouts of nausea or dizziness aren’t usually strong enough to encourage users to quit using the drug.
Long-Term Side Effects of Heroin and Opiate Use
Over time, the depressant effects of heroin use can wreak havoc on your body, particularly your nervous system and heart. The long-term effects of heroin abuse are extremely serious, but can help friends and family members detect a heroin problem before the addict is willing to admit to the problem. Long-term effects of use include:
- Changes in sleep, eating, or scheduling; heroin and other opiates can affect the circadian rhythms.
- Damaged veins, track marks, or bruising
- Transmission of blood-borne infections such as HIV
- Accidental overdose
- Heart failure
- Sudden death
- Stealing or breaking the law
- Kidney failure
- Memory loss
- Chemical dependency
- Changes in brain function, thought patterns, and personality
Long-term users of opiates typically suffer the most severe long-term side effects, even though they experience the least pleasure from the drug. As the body becomes dependent on heroin, users need a larger dose to get the same high they once got. Over time, getting high becomes increasingly difficult, causing users to rely on heroin even more, thus deepening the addiction.
The Withdrawal Process
Opiates are among a small handful of drugs that can give rise to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Consequently, most users are unable to quit these drugs without the assistance of a doctor and a detox program. Some addicts rely on methadone, a synthetic opioid, to reduce withdrawal symptoms and steadily taper down their dosage. However, methadone is addictive in its own right, so a methadone program works best when paired with intensive drug counseling.
Common symptoms of heroin and opiate withdrawal include:
- Aches and pains that can range from minor to severe
- Depression and anxiety
- Strong psychological drug cravings
- Paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations
- Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Overproduction of bodily fluids such as sweat and tears
- Night sweats, fever, and chills
- Restlessness that may lead to repetitive behaviors and skin picking
- Feelings of hopelessness
The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on your health, the opiate or opioid you abuse, how long you’ve used drugs, and similar factors. The good news, though, is that withdrawal is a short process, taking only a few days. Once you’ve successfully completed detox, you may still crave heroin, but the worst is over.