Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, which comes from poppy plants. Heroin is illegal, though there are legal opioids, including OxyContin, Hydrocodone, Codeine, Fentanyl, and Methadone. Heroin and opioid pills create similar reactions in the brain, and both are highly addictive. Approximately one in four people who try heroin will become addicted.
Many heroin users started out taking opioid pills, either through prescription or illicitly, and once addicted, switched to less expensive, more accessible heroin. One statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that supports the idea that more people are finding heroin after opioid pills is the significant increase in heroin use among groups who historically did not use: women, people with private insurance, and people with higher income. These groups are more likely to be prescribed opioids, and the data indicates that some will move on to heroin.
Escalating Heroin Use
According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, 948,000 people said they used heroin in 2016. That number has been increasing since 2007. The number of people trying heroin for the first time also increased, with 170,000 using it for the first time in 2016, which was double the number of first-time users in 2006. The only promising statistic is that users below the age of 18 are at the lowest level since 1991.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says the incidence of people meeting the criteria for heroin dependence rose dramatically from 214,000 in 2002 to 626,000 in 2016. The organization has developed a diagnosing range from mild to severe opioid addiction, also called opioid use disorder (OUD). It’s important to note that any level of dependency on heroin may require some form of treatment.
What Heroin Does
Heroin activates mu-opioid receptors in the brain, binding with naturally occurring chemicals in the body. This causes the brain to release dopamine, which gives a feeling of euphoria and relieves pain. This happens naturally in the body and makes a person feel good; when a person sustains an injury or is suffering, the brain can release dopamine to make the incident more manageable. However, when the same effects are caused by artificial means, such as heroin, there can be negative results, including dependence and addiction.
Once a person takes heroin, it attaches to the brain’s receptors and causes a “rush” or a sudden surge of euphoria. There is also a warm feeling that people say feels very good; this can last for hours. After this, mental function is slowed, breathing and heartbeat are also slowed, and the person may be drowsy for a while. When an overdose occurs, this drowsy feeling becomes overwhelming and the person can slip into a coma, causing permanent brain damage or death.
Some people have a hard time stopping using heroin after just one or two uses, while most people use it awhile before they are addicted. Repeated use can change the structure of the brain, creating long-term imbalances that make it even more difficult to stop using. These changes in the brain also cause heroin users to make questionable choices that can have long term negative effects.
As use continues, a person builds a tolerance, meaning a bigger dose is required to get the same high. Soon after the tolerance builds up there is a physical addiction, causing a heroin user to experience withdrawal symptoms if more heroin isn’t consumed. As users continue, a bigger dose is required, which is what can lead to deadly overdoses.
Heroin Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms
The withdrawal symptoms usually peak on the second day after the last dose. These symptoms can become severe and last a week or more. In worst cases, they can last for months.
Many people who choose to seek treatment for heroin addiction will also use a detox program. In such a program, they can detox under the care of medical professionals and often with the help of medications to help reduce detox symptoms.
Am I addicted to heroin?
There are several other symptoms that may indicate a drug problem. In some cases, there can be other issues that cause these symptoms. While these are things that point to a problem, it is not in itself proof that there is a drug issue.
Overdoses are arguably the most dangerous part of heroin use. The CDC reports 15,000 deaths from heroin overdose in 2017, which is a rate of almost five deaths for every 100,000 people in the U.S. The most frightening revelation is that the rate of overdose is five times higher in 2017 than in 2010. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is leading to more overdose deaths as well. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and heroin laced with fentanyl has entered the market. When someone unknowingly takes heroin laced with the dangerously powerful Fentanyl, overdose is more likely.