It is estimated that 620,000 Americans used heroin in a single year (according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2010). But what is the drug? What does it do and how does it affect those who use it?
Here are our top 5 facts on heroin addiction.
Heroin is an opiate drug.
An opiate drug comes from the seed pod of the poppy plant which contains morphine. Unlike some drugs, heroin can be in many forms; a white powder, a brown powder or a black substance known as black-tar heroin due to its resemblance but Heroin indeed is an opiate.
Heroin users describe feelings of euphoria when taking the drug but what are the other, darker effects?
Strong feelings of happiness are often reported to be combined with a dry mouth, their hands and feet feeling heavy, difficulty moving and a difficulty thinking straight and making decisions.
These reactions are caused by the morphine in the heroin entering the brain quickly. It grabs onto the opioid receptors in the brain, many of which are linked to feeling pain, experiencing pleasure or controlling processes like breathing, arousal and blood pressure.
Heroin users are at a very high risk of life threatening illness and infection.
Over time heroin can cause many long-term health issues. These include collapsed veins, abscesses, stomach cramping and infection in the lining and valves of the heart. Blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain can also become clogged. Heroin use also comes with other issues. Sharing injection needles can increase the risk or diseases like HIV and hepatitis. Users are also at risk of physical injury from impaired judgement.
23% of people who try heroin will become addicted (according the National Institute on Drug Abuse).
Heroin is a very addictive drug. Regular users of heroin often develop a tolerance. To experience the desired effect, these users take higher or more frequent doses. A substance use disorder (SUD) develops when continued drug use causes issues in the user’s life, such as health problems or failure to meet responsibilities. A heroin addict who stops using heroin may develop withdrawal symptoms such as muscle pain, cold flushes, sleep problems and cravings for more of the drug, read this heroin withdrawal timeline here.
Heroin users are at risk of overdosing; taking too much or having a toxic reaction which results in severe health issues or death. Breathing slows, decreasing the amount of oxygen reaching the brain which can cause brain damage or breakdown of the nervous system.
There are 2 widely used and effective treatments for heroin addiction; medication or behavioural therapies.
The medical treatment of heroin abuse uses buprenorphine and methadone. Both of these work by grabbing onto the same opioid receptors in the brain as the heroin but with less force. This reduces the cravings and withdrawal symptoms in the patient. A different form of medical treatment is naltrexone. This simply blocks opioid receptors and completely prevents opioid drugs from influencing the patient.
There are typically two types of behavioural therapies for heroin addiction; contingency management and cognitive-behavioural therapy.
Contingency management is a way of rewarding a user with vouchers or small cash rewards for positive steps, for example staying drug-free for a week or a month.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy helps modify the expectations of the patient’s drug-use. It works to manage triggers and stress related to taking heroin or the drug in question. This form of therapy is typically very effective and can be used alongside medicines.