Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant. It is a “downer” or a depressant that affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or a tar-like substance. Street names for heroin include “Big H”, “Black tar”, “Brown sugar”, “Dope”, “Horse”, “Junk”, “Muc”, “Skag”, and “Smac”. Other names may refer to types of heroin produced in a specific geographical area, such as “Mexican black tar”. Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is “cut” with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Both new and experienced users risk overdosing on heroin because it is impossible for them to know the purity of the heroin they are using.
Heroin can be used in a variety of ways, depending on preference and the purity of the drug. Heroin can be injected into a vein (“mainlining”), injected into a muscle, smoked in a water pipe or standard pipe, mixed in a marijuana joint or regular cigarette, inhaled as smoke through a straw, known as “chasing the dragon,” snorted as powder via the nose.
The effects of heroin abuse appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours. After an injection of heroin, the user reports feeling a surge of euphoria (“rush”) accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth, and heavy extremities. Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system. Other effects can include slowed and slurred speech, slow gait, constricted pupils, droopy eyelids, impaired night vision, vomiting, and constipation.
Long-term effects of heroin appear after repeated use for some period of time. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, cellulites, and liver disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health condition of the abuser, as well as from heroin’s depressing effects on respiration. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin may have additives that do not really dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs. With regular heroin use, tolerance develops. This means 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. Withdrawal, which in regular abusers may occur as early as a few hours after the last administration, produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), kicking movements (“kicking the habit”), and other symptoms. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last does and subside after about a week. Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health can be fatal.
Heroin overdoses can cause slow and shallow breathing, convulsions, coma, and even death. Heroin is usually injected, sniffed/snorted, or smoked. Typically, a heroin abuser may inject up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while intramuscular injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). When heroin is sniffed or smoked, peak effects are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. Although, smoking and sniffing heroin doesn’t usually produce a “rush” as quickly or as intensely as intravenous injection.
Heroin is a highly addictive drug, and its use is a serious problem. It is both the most abused and the most rapidly acting of the opiates.
References include: http://drug-effects.us/what-is-heroin, http://www.drugfree.org/drug-guide/heroin
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