Commonly recognized as one of the most dangerous and highly addictive drugs currently in existence, heroin is an illegal opioid drug. The drug is synthesized from morphine, which is extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. The sap-like opium is removed and refined to make morphine, which is then further refined to make the various types of heroin. It is usually a white or brown powder sometimes it may even be gray or black. Heroin can also be a black, sticky substance known as “black tar heroin”.
Heroin is part of a seemingly endless and increasingly deadly cycle that attempts to replace one potent and highly addictive opiate drug with another. When opium addiction first became a major problem in the 1850’s, the proposed solution was to wean opium addicts off opium by giving them a less potent and non-addictive substitute opiate drug. The substitute, morphine, soon became an even bigger problem than opium, and a new substitute which was likewise erroneously labeled less potent and less addictive was introduced – heroin. Incredibly, the cycle continued even further when methadone was formulated and offered as a less powerful and non-addictive substitute for the drug. Methadone has since proven to be even more addictive than heroin.
It is estimated that over nine million people in the world use heroin. The 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicated that there are at least one hundred fifty-three thousand users in the United States alone, and that heroin and other opiate drugs are responsible for nearly twenty percent of all drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment admissions. The 2008 European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction report indicated that heroin and other opiate drugs were involved in eighty percent of all drug-related deaths in Europe.
The Use of Heroin
Heroin can be injected, snorted or smoked. No matter how the drug is introduced to the body, it enters the bloodstream and arrives at the brain very quickly, producing marked physiological changes in the brain and central nervous system. Once it reaches the brain, it converts back into morphine and works to bind the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are largely involved in the individual’s physical perception of pain and reward, and when bound by opiate drugs causes the individual to experience both a physical numbing effect as well as a euphoric “rush”. Unfortunately, since opioid receptors in the brain stem control many of the automatic and necessary physical functions of the body, like blood pressure, respiration and even sexual arousal, heroin use can cause a dangerous depression in these functions. One of the primary causes of overdose-related death is the suppression of respiratory functioning.
Individuals who snort or smoke heroin usually experience a dry mouth, a warm skin flush, a feeling of heaviness in the extremities and a sense of cloudy mental functioning. After a short time, these initial sensations wear-off and the individual feels alternately wakeful and drowsy. Persons who inject the drug usually also experience a euphoric rush immediately after the injection that lasts for a brief time, usually only a few minutes.
The speed with which heroin enters the user’s brain explains why over twenty percent of individuals who try it become addicted. The changes produced in the brain cause the body to become eventually tolerant of the drug, requiring higher doses to achieve the same desired effects. When use continues past tolerance the individual’s body becomes dependent on the drug, and the person will continue to abuse the drug, despite the damaging effects it is having on their life and health, only to avoid severely painful and often dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Side Effects of Heroin Use
Heroin use can cause a host of dangerous side effects, including:
- Collapsed veins
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Liver or kidney disease
- Pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses
- Rotting teeth
- Inflammation of the gums
- Cold sweats
- Weakened immune system
- Muscle weakness and partial paralysis
- Reduced sexual functioning
- Loss of memory
- Loss of appetite
- Facial lesions
Heroin withdrawal can also be highly dangerous and can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, hypothermia, drowsiness, coma, severe cravings, uncontrolled kicking movements and more. It is not uncommon for an individual to desire to be free from their addiction, but continue using the drug only to avoid experiencing the withdrawal symptoms.
As dangerous as “pure” heroin can be to an individual’s body and health, street heroin can sometimes be even more deadly as it may contain toxic contaminants or additives. There is no way that a person can determine whether the drugs they have purchase on the street is pure or what toxins and additives it contains. An individual who is highly tolerant of heroin and therefore injecting very high quantities of it can die of blood poisoning or organ failure after a single injection of impure heroin.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
An individual should never attempt to recover from heroin addiction on their own or without professional medical assistance. Not only is heroin addiction recognized as one of the most difficult addictions for an individual to recover from, but recovery can also be lengthy, painful and dangerous. Key treatment for heroin addiction includes:
- DetoxificationA medically-supervised detoxification program is a vital component of successful heroin rehabilitation. Heroin withdrawals can sometimes last for a week or longer, but cleansing the body of drug toxins is necessary for the individual to experience freedom from cravings, regain some control of their life and move forward into a rehabilitation treatment program.
- CounselingAs with all drug use, heroin use begins when the individual is seeking to suppress or avoid some problem in their life. Counseling can help the person determine why they turned to heroin use in the first place, and can help them address any guilt, shame or embarrassment they feel as a result of heroin use and addiction.
- Life skills educationWhatever caused an individual to turn to heroin use in the past can cause them to relapse into heroin use in the future, unless they have received basic life skills education. With the tools and expertise to address and resolve problems in life, the individual is more prepared to lead a sober future.
- AftercareNo matter how thorough or effective heroin rehabilitation treatment is, the individual may still encounter unexpected difficulties when they return to their normal life environment. An aftercare program can provide the individual with the support and continuing services they need to maintain their hard-won sobriety.Some heroin rehabilitation treatment programs include the use of substitute medications like buprenorphine and methadone to assist with heroin withdrawal. These drugs also bind the opioid receptors in the brain, although more weakly than heroin and the belief is that they can help wean an individual off heroin use and reduce cravings. However, it is important to remember that these medications are also drugs that produce physiological changes in the body, and therefore also run the risk of tolerance, dependence, and addiction.
Freedom from Heroin Addiction
Of course, the best way to solve heroin addiction is to prevent heroin use from occurring in the first place. However, where heroin use, tolerance, dependence or addiction has occurred, the solution is full and detailed heroin rehabilitation treatment. It’s hard but not impossible to overcome a heroin substance abuse and have a healthy, happy, sober future.
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