Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Heroin Abuse

Heroin, also known as “big H,” “black tar,” “brown sugar,” “horse,” “dope,” and “junk,” is a highly addictive drug that’s synthesized from morphine (a heavy-duty prescription painkiller). Morphine is a naturally occurring substance that’s derived from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin can be used through a variety of methods – it can be smoked, snorted, or dissolved in water and injected directly into the vein. Heroin very rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier, increasing its addiction potential. This fast delivery of the drug to the brain also leads to complex health risks. Heroin is often cut with impurities such as baking soda, which means that each time a heroin user shoots up, he or she runs the risk of greater health consequences and overdose.

When heroin enters the brain, it is converted back to morphine, which binds to opioid receptors in certain cells located in many areas of the body and the brain that are responsible for perception of pain and pleasure. Opioid receptors are also found in the brain stem, part of the autonomic central nervous system responsible for areas crucial for life, including blood pressure, respiration, and other automatic nervous system functions. Heroin overdoses can lead to a substantial decrease in breathing and require immediate emergency intervention. After heroin is abused, people who abuse the drug experience a euphoric rush along with dry mouth, flushing of the skin, clouded mental functioning, and heaviness in the extremities.

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Statistics

In 2011, 4.2 million people (1.6% of the population) in the United States age 12 and older had used heroin at least once in their lifetime. Of those, about 23% will become dependent upon it.

Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Addiction

Researchers have been unable to determine the precise cause for addiction to heroin and most generally believe that there is a complex interplay of factors working together to create addiction. The most commonly accepted causes for heroin addiction include:

Genetic: Most researchers believe that genetics play a role in addiction. People who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with an addiction to drugs or alcohol are at greater risk for developing an addiction themselves.

Physical: Addiction and abuse of heroin leads to long-term changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. These changes affect a person’s ability to make proper decisions, increase impulses to abuse heroin, and can affect self-control.

Environmental: People who are raised in a home in which addiction was normal learn that abusing drugs is the way to cope with negative life circumstances. Additionally, people who begin to experiment with drugs at younger ages are at a greater risk for developing addictions later in life.

Risk factors:

  • Being male
  • Presence of mental health disorders
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of family involvement
  • Anxiety, depression, loneliness
  • Usage of a highly addictive drug, such as heroin

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

The symptoms of heroin abuse will vary depending upon individual genetic makeup, length of abuse, amount of heroin used, and usage of other drugs or alcohol. Some of the most common symptoms of heroin abuse include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Increasing amount time spent alone
  • Engaging in illegal activities
  • Unexpected need for money
  • Incapable at maintaining responsibilities at work, home, or school
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Physical Symptoms:

  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Heaviness in the extremities
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Bradycardia
  • Dry mouth
  • Tolerance
  • Physical addiction

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Going “on the nod,” an alternating wakeful and drowsy state
  • Psychological addiction
  • Mental cloudiness
  • Decreased mental focus
  • Inability to problem-solve

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Surge of euphoria
  • Depressive disorders
  • Mood swings

Effects of Heroin Abuse

The long-term consequences of heroin abuse and addiction can be devastating and life-threatening. The effects will occur on a spectrum based upon individual genetic makeup, presence of other health-related issues, length of addiction, frequency of use, and presence of other drugs in the addict’s body. Long-term effects of heroin abuse may include:

  • Fatal overdose
  • Incarceration
  • Divorce
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Social isolation
  • Poverty
  • Joblessness
  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Infectious diseases – HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, C
  • Liver disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Abscesses at injection site
  • Kidney disease
  • Pulmonary complications
  • Permanent damage to all vital organs
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Withdrawal and Overdose Effects

Heroin is a dangerously addictive drug that can cause serious complications in the life of an addict, including overdose and physical dependence.

Withdrawal from Heroin Effects: Chronic heroin abuse leads to physical dependence which can lead to withdrawal symptoms if the drug is abruptly discontinued. Withdrawal should always occur in a medically-monitored detox and rehabilitation program to prevent complications. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal may begin within a few hours following the discontinuation of heroin usage and include:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps, “cold turkey”
  • Involuntary kicking movements, “kicking the habit”
  • Severe cravings

Heroin Overdose: Overdose from heroin may occur when too much heroin is used in one sitting or if the purity is higher than an addict is accustomed to. Overdosing from heroin is a medical emergency and includes the following symptoms:

  • Slow, labored breathing; shallow breathing; no breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Tongue discoloration, dry mouth
  • Extreme hypotension
  • Weak, thready pulse; no pulse
  • Cyanosis of lips and nails
  • Spasms of gastrointestinal tract
  • Muscle spasticity
  • Drowsiness
  • Disorientation
  • Delirium
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

There are a number of disorders that occur alongside heroin addiction. The most commonly co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcoholism
  • Other substance abuse
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