Heroin has been a major public health issue in Australia since the late ’90s. Although the numbers are now lower than at that time, there is a significant increase in chronic complications resulting from heroin use. These include addiction, dependence and death by overdose.
As it is easily accessible and gives a powerful high, it is often the drug of choice for recreational users. For the same reasons, there is also an enormous risk for accidental overdose. In fact, 95% of heroin-related deaths are due to overdose.
Overcoming heroin addiction is a matter of life and death. If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin use, you have to be fully informed about the effects of heroin and the available treatment options for those who are actively addicted to the drug.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from opium poppy plants and belongs to a class of substances called ‘opioids’.
Opioids are commonly used in the medical setting for pain relief. They are described as ‘downers’ or ‘depressants’ that impact on how the central nervous system perceives pain. Because the brain’s pleasure systems are triggered, these drugs bring a feeling of euphoria, which is why they are often misused.
Heroin, unlike prescription opioid medication like codeine, oxycodone and others, is an illicit drug. It is usually injected straight into the bloodstream but can also be smoked or sniffed.
Some common street names include ‘smack’, ‘horse’, ‘skag’, ‘junk’, ‘gear’, ‘black tar’, ‘dope’, ‘H’, ‘harry’ and ‘dragon’.
What Does Heroin Look Like?
The purest form of heroin is usually a white powder-like substance. There are brown powder forms, which indicate that there are other substances added to it.
There’s also black tar, another form of heroin sold on the streets, which has a dark brown or black colour and a tar-like sticky feel to it.
While heroin is generally white when purchased, it’s impossible to tell how pure it is with the naked eye. Dealers mention that the consistency is akin to that of powdered sugar or paracetamol. Given that there are varying qualities of heroin in the illicit drug trade, and that some types have additives in them, the risk of poisoning or overdose becomes much higher.
Short-Term Effects of Heroin
Individuals who inject, sniff or smoke heroin will immediately feel a euphoric surge or what can be described as a ‘rush’. Their mouth may turn dry, and the downer effect starts to manifest as heaviness in the arms and legs, with a general feeling of relaxation or sleepiness.
The effects of the substance may include diminished mental capacity and dulled emotions. Once the drug is injected, it takes about five minutes for these effects to take place, and they can last three to four hours after a single dose.
Pure heroin can give these pleasurable and numbing effects, but since street heroin is produced with additives and impurities, it may cause clogging and infection in the blood vessels.
Signs of Heroin Addiction
Heroin is highly addictive, both physically and mentally. It directly binds to receptors in a person’s brain to release dopamine and gives them that good feeling. But the release is only temporary, and it will leave them wanting more of that rush.
While not everyone who tries heroin will become addicted, the chances of developing dependence are very high: about one in four people will be addicted to it after the first try.
When a person takes heroin repeatedly, the body develops tolerance over time. This means that the brain will not be able to naturally produce dopamine as it once did. One would then need to up the dosage or take more frequent doses of the drug, to achieve that same level of euphoria.
Often the addiction begins with prescription drugs like painkillers. Once the person has built the tolerance for these medications and no longer gets the same rush, they may turn to illicit drugs like heroin.
If you suspect that someone you know may be engaged in misuse of heroin, look out for these signs:
- slurred speech
- smaller pupils
- depression or sudden withdrawal from social groups
- memory issues
- needle marks inside the arm, behind the knees, or other parts of the body
- runny nose or nose sores (if heroin is sniffed)
- decline in personal hygiene
- changes in behaviour at home, school or work (e.g. sudden withdrawal or aggression)
- drug paraphernalia in the home (e.g. syringes, glass or metal pipes, dirty spoons)
- issues with money, such as needing more money for no particular reason
- surprising risky behaviour, such as stealing valuables or fighting with other people
At the start, there may be no obvious symptoms of heroin addiction, especially if a person is trying hard to hide their substance misuse.
But as the tolerance and the need for the drug increase, it can get harder to hide the signs relating to physical appearance and behaviour.
Indeed, one of the key signs of heroin addiction is the inability to stop using the drug despite the negative consequences. Therefore, it’s crucial to try and identify these signs early, so as to get the proper help and support for individuals suffering from heroin addiction.
Symptoms of Heroin Overdose
Heroin overdose is common, as those who misuse the drug take larger and larger amounts to get the same pleasurable feeling. It’s the most prevailing reason for deaths relating to the drug. Overdose is a potential risk for heroin users as there is no guarantee on the quality or ingredients each dose contains.
Symptoms to look out for include:
Inability to breathe
When the body can no longer handle the amount of heroin in the bloodstream, the respiratory system shuts down. The body is unable to continue a normal breathing pattern. A person may pass out and have extremely slow breathing when overdosed.
Heart starts malfunctioning
During a heroin overdose, an individual experiences arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat. The heart is unable to pump the correct amount of blood to bring oxygen through the entire body. This can cause major organs and systems to shut down. Evidence shows that people who inject heroin are 300 times more likely to die of heart-related conditions.
Central nervous system shuts down
Opioids are depressants, which block the brain’s ability to sense pain. In the event of an overdose, everything shuts down—blood pressure drops, heart rate becomes erratic, and breathing slows down dangerously.
Fluid goes up into the airways
Most drugs, including heroin and cocaine, can cause pulmonary oedema, or excessive fluid in the lungs. This can manifest as vomit or liquid regurgitated in the airways, causing an individual to choke to death.
Other physical warning signs that could point to a heroin overdose include:
- shallow or erratic breathing
- choking or gurgling noise from throat
- blue lips or fingernails
- limp body
- slow or virtually no pulse detected
What to Do If You Suspect an Overdose
While some of the signs may look like a person is just sleeping, it’s important to act fast if you have even the slightest suspicion of an overdose. An overdose can lead to heart failure, respiratory shutdown, coma and death.
If you are unable to wake someone whom you know has taken heroin, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and notify the operator that you suspect a heroin overdose. Do not focus on the legal consequences for the individual who has overdosed; the important thing is to prevent death. DayHab offer forensic services to help with bail on rehabilitation conditions.
Heroin Dependence and Tolerance
Keep in mind that dependence on heroin is highly likely. Once it is misused, a tolerance for the drug is developed over time. This can have serious ramifications for a person’s wellbeing.
Not only can it impact an individual’s health, but it can also ruin their existing relationships, career and basically everything that they have worked hard for. People suffering from heroin addiction tend to be so desperate for drug money that they turn to illegal activities to obtain the drug. There’s also a high risk of infection from diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis due to needle contamination.
Heroin is a dangerous substance that can wreak havoc on a person’s life.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin
It is very difficult to recover from heroin addiction, and there are serious long-term effects associated with prolonged use:
- loss of sex drive
- loss of appetite
- damage to vital organs like the heart, lungs, liver and brain
- risk of contracting diseases
- destruction of relationships
- risk of death from overdose or complications
Using Heroin with Other Drugs
Heroin is a common recreational drug, and it is often taken with alcohol and other over-the-counter medication or illegal drugs like speed, ice and others. While heroin is extremely dangerous in itself, mixing it with other drugs creates interactions that are even more unpredictable and dangerous for the user.
Why Is Heroin So Addictive?
All opioid-class drugs are highly addictive because they directly influence the brain and its pleasure sensors. When a person injects or takes heroin, enzymes in the brain convert the substance into morphine and interact with opioid receptors. These receptors are located in the brain stem, spinal cord and digestive tract.
Once the morphine latches onto these receptors, the hormone dopamine is released. Dopamine is a reward chemical naturally released by the body during exercise, sex and other pleasurable activities.
When a person develops a dependence on heroin to get that surge of dopamine in their system, stopping cold turkey will result in withdrawal. And since heroin numbs pain perception, someone who is undergoing withdrawal can begin to feel excruciating pain without the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms are so unbearable that most individuals who are in active addiction to heroin will just keep taking the drug in order not to feel the severity of the pain. Most individuals find it extremely difficult to get past the withdrawal stage even if they want to give up the drug.
Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal
Withdrawal symptoms begin to manifest about 6 to 24 hours after taking the last dose. These symptoms include:
- joint and muscle pain
- nausea and vomiting
- depression and irritability
- sleep difficulty
- cold sweats
- runny eyes and nose
Heroin Dependence Treatment
Heroin is a very destructive substance, but given the right treatment and support, recovery is always possible.
Residential rehabilitation enables a person with substance use disorder to be away from the environment and situation that make it difficult to achieve wellness.
This type of rehabilitation goes for a minimum of 28 days and starts with detox. Those enrolled in the program have a structured routine that comprises of daily therapy, support groups and rehabilitation activities.
Structure and therapeutic activities can help an individual overcome the addiction in a safe and supportive setting while receiving medical supervision for detoxification and drug treatments.
As every individual may need different strategies to achieve recovery, there are many options that work towards this goal. It is best to first consult with a counsellor for guidance in determining the most appropriate treatment plan.
Detoxing is an important component of residential treatment. As mentioned, heroin withdrawal symptoms are intense, which can easily lead to on-going drug use despite the willingness to quit. A medically supervised detoxification program helps lessen the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.
Patients are encouraged to continue detoxification even after their 28 day program. They can join either a partial hospitalisation program or an outpatient program, depending on the need. DayHab Private Hospital for Addiction Treatment offers extended 60 and 90 day programs for those that require further treatment.
The use of anti-craving medication is key to helping an individual recover from opioid addiction. Common medications like buprenorphine and methadone, help to stop the behaviour and can prevent future relapse.
It’s important to remember that detoxification only addresses the physical dependence on the drug. Substance misuse is as much about the body as it is about the mind and psyche. Hence, it’s important to combine detox with counselling and therapy strategies to avoid a relapse.
Get the Right Help
Heroin addiction is a serious condition, but it is treatable. DayHab is a private hospital for addiction treatment that provides holistic plans for those who are trying to overcome heroin addiction.
If you think that you or a loved one has developed a dependence on heroin or other substances, consult with our DayHab specialists to access the resources you need to achieve recovery.