What is heroin?
Pure heroin (diacetylmorphine) is a white powder with a bitter taste abused for its euphoric effects. Heroin, a highly addictive drug, is derived from the morphine alkaloid found in opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum) and is roughly 2 to 3 times more potent than morphine. It is usually injected, smoked or snorted up the nose. It exhibits euphoric (“rush”), anti-anxiety and pain-relieving properties.
- Most illicit heroin is sold as a white or brownish powder and is usually “cut” with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. It can also be cut with strychnine or other poisons. This is the form that is injected.
- Potent opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanyl have been found cut into heroin accessed on the streets, and can be deadly to the unsuspecting user.
- Another form known as “black tar” may be sticky, like roofing tar, or hard, like coal. Its color may vary from dark brown to black. This form is usually smoked or snorted.
- Because abusers do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at often risk of overdose or death.
- In the U.S., opium is rarely grown and cultivated, but is brought in from Latin American countries. Afghanistan is the capital of opium harvesting, producing roughly 75% of the world’s heroin supply.
Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, carries stiff criminal penalties, and has no acceptable medical use in the U.S.
Common opiates available by prescription include: codeine, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl, methadone, morphine, tramadol, oxycodone, oxymorphone, and tapentadol. All of these agents are classified as Schedule II narcotics by the DEA.
Heroin history in the U.S.
Heroin was first synthesized legally from morphine (which came from opium) in the late 1800s. The Bayer Company of Germany was the first to introduce heroin in the U.S. However, by the early 1900s addiction and abuse were widespread, and by 1924 federal law made all heroin use illegal in the U.S.
Methods of use
Heroin is most often injected intravenously (IV), however, it may also be:
- vaporized (“smoked”)
- sniffed (“snorted”)
- used as a suppository
- orally ingested.
Smoking and sniffing heroin do not produce a “rush” as quickly or as intensely as IV injection. Oral ingestion does not usually lead to a “rush”, but use in suppository form may have intense euphoric effects. Heroin can be addictive by any given route.
Effects of heroin use
Heroin is metabolized to morphine and other metabolites which bind to opioid receptors in the brain.
- After an injection, the user reports feeling a surge of euphoria (the “rush”) accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and heavy extremities.
- Following this initial euphoria, the user experiences an alternately wakeful and drowsy state.
- Mental functioning becomes clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system.
- The short-term effects of abuse appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours.
Other effects can include respiratory depression, constricted (“pinpoint”) pupils and nausea. Effects of overdose may include slow and shallow breathing, hypotension, blue lips and nails, muscle spasms, convulsions, coma, and possible death.
Intravenous use is complicated by other issues such as the sharing of contaminated needles, the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and toxic reactions to impurities.
Other medical complications that may arise include:
- collapsed veins
- spontaneous abortion
- endocarditis (inflammation of the heart lining and valves).
Heroin addiction and withdrawal
With regular use, tolerance develops where the abuser must use more heroin to achieve the same intensity or effect. As higher doses are used over time, physical dependence and addiction develop.
- With physical dependence, the body has adapted to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms may occur if use is reduced or stopped. With addiction, a person uses opioids to get high instead of using them to control pain.
- Withdrawal, which in regular abusers may occur as early as a few hours after the last use, produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), kicking movements and other symptoms.
- Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last use and subside after about a week.
- Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal, although heroin withdrawal is considered much less dangerous than alcohol or barbiturate withdrawal.
Addiction can remove an otherwise healthy and contributing member from society, and may lead to severe disability and eventually death.
What to do in a heroin overdose?
Contact emergency personnel immediately. Heroin overdose is a medical emergency that requires treatment with naloxone. Call 911 for an emergency transport in the US and Canada.
Signs of an opioid overdose include extreme drowsiness, blue lips and fingernails, slow or halted breathing, pinpoint pupils, slow heart rate, coma, death.
Occurring more frequently in the U.S., heroin purchased on the street may be “cut” or contaminated with other dangerous and extremely potent opioids, such as fentanyl or carfentanyl. These agents are often fatal to the user, and deaths have been reported.
Learn More: Know Your Naloxone: Save a Life
For use in the community, naloxone comes as a nasal spray (Narcan Nasal) or as an injectable device with verbal instructions built in (Evzio). If naloxone is available, you can administer it yourself to someone who is overdosing. You should still call 911.
In many pharmacies you can now access naloxone without a prescription to keep with you, at home or in your car in case of an overdose emergency. This is recommended especially if you have friends or family members using opioids or undergoing treatment. Ask your pharmacist about access to naloxone in your state. Read the directions on administering the naloxone before an emergency occurs.
- Naloxone (Narcan, Narcan Nasal, Evzio) will usually result in reversal of the opioid-induced respiratory depression within 2 minutes.
- Retreatment with naloxone may be required as the duration of action of naloxone (30 to 120 minutes) may be shorter than the action of the opioid itself.
- Respiratory support, intravenous fluids, and other adjunctive medications may be required, so it is important to call 911 immediately.
Treatment for opioid use disorder: Detoxification and MAT
Several medical treatment options exist for heroin addiction and opioid use disorder (OUD): the general term for this process is Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). A medically supervised withdrawal prior to MAT is known as detoxification (“detox”).
Relapse, which is the continued use of opioids after opioid withdrawal, is a serious event. Relapse can occur in up to 90% of patients within the first 2 months unless treated with medications for maintenance, like MAT. Medically-supervised treatment can help you stay off of opiates by blocking the euphoria (high) that is experienced.
Drug treatments for detoxification and long-term maintenance are most effective when combined with a medication compliance program and behavioral or “talk” therapy. These medications can relieve opioid cravings without producing the “high” or dangerous side effects of other opioids. While either one can be used individually, the risk for relapse is high when used alone.