In the late 1990s, the increase in opioid medication prescriptions in the U.S. led to widespread misuse of both medically-prescribed and non-prescribed opioids. Since then, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has dramatically increased 5-fold

Overdose deaths have since reached epidemic levels nation-wide, leading the White House to declare opioid deaths to be a public health emergency. Opioid overdoses occur daily in every age group and county. In Arizona alone, at least five people die daily from an opioid overdose. 

Heroin is one of the most addictive illicit opioids. With roughly 335,000 monthly users in the U.S., one in four people who try heroin will become addicted. Once addicted, heroin sets into motion a pattern of use that can be both dangerous and deadly. 

Research suggests that misuse of prescription opioids may open the door to heroin dependence, as 80% of heroin users first misused prescription opioids. 

Recovering from addiction to heroin and other opioids can be difficult, but it is far from impossible. Sequoia Behavioral Health aims to prevent heroin overdoses by providing the necessary information to address opioid misuse and addiction.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug made from the seed pod of the opium poppy plants grown in Asia, Colombia, and Mexico. The seed pod produces a natural substance called morphine, which reduces pain and improves quality of life for terminal patients. 

Heroin usually comes in the form of a white or brown powder. However, black tar heroin appears as a black, sticky substance. The discoloration is a result of impurities left behind by crude processing methods. Users inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin. Others may mix heroin with crack cocaine in a practice called speedballing.

Does Heroin Use Stem From Prescription Opioids?

Prescription opioid pain medicines such as OxyContin and Vicodin have effects similar to heroin. Research suggests that misuse of prescription opioids may open the door to heroin dependence, as 80% of heroin users first misused prescription opioids. 

Approximately 1/3 of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder reported heroin as their regularly used drug. 

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin is highly addictive as regular users quickly develop a tolerance for the drug. This means that they need higher and more frequent doses of heroin to experience its desired effects. 

A substance use disorder (SUD) occurs when the continued use of a drug (or alcohol) interferes with daily function. Ongoing heroin users eventually neglect health, home, school, or work responsibilities. 

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Those who abruptly stop the drug may have severe withdrawal symptoms, beginning as early as a few hours after last use. These include:

  • Cold flashes with goosebumps
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • Severe heroin cravings
  • Severe muscle and bone pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Vomiting

Are There Side Effects of Heroin Use?

Heroin use has a plethora of short-term and long-term effects. Heroin rapidly enters the brain and binds to cell receptors, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. Unfortunately, heroin also binds to receptors that control heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. 

Short-Term Effects

People who use heroin report feeling an initial surge of euphoria called a "rush.”  However, the other common effects include:

  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Semiconsciousness
  • Severe itching
  • Warm flushing of the skin

Long-Term Effects

Studies on the long-term effects of heroin show loss of white brain matter, which affects decision-making, behavior control, and stress responses. People who use heroin long-term may also develop:

  • Abscesses
  • Collapsed veins (from injection)
  • Constipation and stomach cramps
  • Damaged nostril tissue (from snorting)
  • Infection of the heart lining/valves
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular menstrual cycles (women)
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications, conditions, and pneumonia
  • Mental disorders (depression and antisocial personality disorder are most common)
  • Sexual dysfunction (men)

Effects of Injection Drug Use

There are many misconceptions regarding methods of heroin administration. Many people smoke or snort the substance because they believe that this reduces the addictive quality. However, this is not the case. 

Studies on the long-term effects of heroin show loss of white brain matter, which affects decision-making, behavior control, and stress responses.

In addition to all the side effects of addiction, people who inject heroin have a higher risk of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C (HCV). HIV and HCV transmit through contact with blood or other bodily fluids, commonly occurring when sharing needles or having unprotected sex. Heroin use increases the likelihood of these and other risky activities.

Additional Potential Side-Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin often contains additives such as powdered milk, starch, or sugar. Drug manufacturers or dealers may “cut” the drug with these cheap fillers to increase the volume they can sell while cutting costs to themselves. 

These additives can clog blood vessels that lead to the brain, kidneys, liver, or lungs, causing severe and permanent damage. 

When people overdose on heroin, their breathing slows, which decreases the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain (hypoxia). Hypoxia can carry long-term mental health and nervous system effects, including coma and death. 

Can a Heroin Overdose Be Treated?

Medication can treat an opioid overdose if given immediately. The foremost remedy, naloxone, works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors to block the drug’s effects.

Occasionally, more than one dose is needed to help a person begin breathing again. An overdosed individual must receive additional support in the emergency room, even when given naloxone. 

Naloxone appears in the form of a nasal spray (Kloxxado) or injection (Narcan). Due to rising opioid overdose deaths, public health efforts have made naloxone available to at-risk people, their families, and others in the community. 

Is Opioid Use Disorder Treatable?

Many treatments, including behavioral therapy and medication, are effective in helping people stop opioid use. However, it's essential to match the best treatment approach to each patient's individual needs. 

Behavioral therapies for opioid use disorders include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management. CBT modifies the patient's drug-use expectations and behaviors, which, in turn, helps them manage triggers and stress. 

Contingency management provides motivational incentives for positive behaviors, such as vouchers or small cash rewards. These behavioral treatment approaches have been found to be effective when used alongside medication. 

Two of the most common medicines that help stop heroin use include buprenorphine and methadone. These medications work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain in a weakened state. In doing so, they reduce withdrawals and cravings.

Another treatment option is naltrexone, which prevents opioid drugs from having an effect by blocking its receptors. Once treatment begins, a buprenorphine/naloxone combination and extended-release naltrexone are highly effective in treating heroin addiction. However, total detoxification is required before the use of naltrexone. 

Can I Get Help to Stay Sober?

We understand that recovery can be daunting, and we commend you for taking that first step! Our team is committed to helping individuals stop the cycle of substance abuse to rebuild healthy, happy, and accomplished lives. Our licensed clinicians will develop an individualized treatment plan unique to your situation. 

Our team assists our clients in developing new and healthy habits, coping strategies, relapse prevention, and greater levels of success—all in a safe, welcoming environment. Give us a call today.