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Heroin is often described as “the hardest of drugs,” “a scourge on poor neighborhoods,” “a serious problem in the community” and “a killer.”

But it wasn’t always described this way. In fact, an article published in the journal Postgraduate Medicine states that heroin got its name because the people who discovered the drug were impressed by its “heroic capabilities.” In short, these researchers of the late 1800s and early 1900s thought that heroin could be used to remove pain, ease suffering and make very ill people feel better. Little did they know that heroin would be used in a much different manner by later generations. These days, heroin causes much more pain than they likely ever thought possible.

In the 1900s, heroin was available through doctors and pharmacists, and high-class ladies and gentlemen used the drug for pain control. Now, heroin is used exclusively by recreational drug users.

The drug is illegal, and impossible to get through any sort of reputable channel. However, this doesn’t stop people from using the drug. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, 140,000 people used heroin for the first time in 2010. The average age of these first-time users was 21.3 years, which represents a decline in age from previous years. While some of these people may try heroin just once and suffer little to no effect from their use, others will develop serious and disabling addictions as a response to their heroin experimentation.

Understanding Heroin

heroin addictionHeroin is distilled from the seedpods of poppy plants. When the flowers have wilted away from the pod, manufacturers score the pods and remove the milky sap that flows out. This sap is then dried and manipulated in order to produce pure heroin. The appearance of the drug can vary widely from location to location. Since the drug is illegal, there are no agencies that provide oversight in how pure the drug is, how it looks or how it is sold. In the eastern part of the United States, the drug tends to be sold in a white powder form. In the western part of the United States, however, most heroin is sold in sticky, brown blocks.

According to the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center, people who are new to heroin often snort or sniff the drug, as they believe that this method of ingestion is not as addictive as shooting heroin intravenously. Unfortunately, these people are wrong.

Heroin is just as addictive whether it is snorted, injected or eaten. The drug works in the same way.

Heroin tends to “trick” the body, as it behaves much like a natural substance that should be in the bloodstream. The body tends to treat the drug like a happy coincidence, and the immune system or the liver never raise any alarms when the drug floods the body. The heroin quickly moves to the brain, setting off a series of chemical reactions that can make the user feel happy and relaxed. Over time, higher and higher doses of the drugs are needed to cause this same reaction.

The Basis of Addiction

Heroin Abuse SignsScientists have long wondered why some people develop an addiction to drugs and other people do not. In the past, people assumed that some people simply stumbled into heroin use with no real prompting, and if they were unlucky, they developed addictions. Researchers now think that some people have specific genetic markers that predispose them to addiction, and if those people use drugs, they’re likely to become habitual users. For example, an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that some people who are predisposed to mental illnesses such as anxiety and phobia are predisposed to heroin addiction, as the drug helps them calm their minds and feel more relaxed. In other words, their genes predispose them to mental illnesses, and they medicate with heroin.

Other studies have taken this idea one step further, suggesting that heroin addiction arises when people have a genetic predisposition for addiction and they endure some sort of horrific event. A study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that people who had a specific type of gene disturbance and who had a trauma in childhood were likely to develop a heroin addiction. Interestingly, one gene change was linked to heroin, while another change was linked to cocaine addiction. This research suggests that genes play a stronger role than previously thought in the story of addiction.

Researchers know that using heroin on a habitual basis for a long period of time tends to raise the risk of addiction. As the chemical changes take hold in the brain, the addict begins to:

  • Crave the drug
  • Spend increasing amounts of time thinking about heroin
  • Risk his or her job, family, safety or security in order to get the drug
  • Experience physical pain when not taking the drug

Researchers have also found the link between use and addiction in laboratory experiments. For example, a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that rats who were exposed to high levels of heroin for long periods of time tended to self-administer heroin sooner than rats who had only been exposed to low levels of the drug. It seems that the changes become stronger when the user is taking high doses.

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Dangers of Heroin

Heroin Addiction ProblemPeople who abuse heroin face a long list of medical problems including:

  • Scarred or collapsed veins
  • Abscesses
  • Heart or lung infections
  • Hepatitis B or C infection

In addition, many manufacturers of heroin add inert ingredients to the drug in order to stretch their supplies and therefore make more money. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these inert materials don’t always dissolve in the bloodstream, and they can collect in pockets in the organs. Portions of the organs can die off, or they can become infected or inflamed. These substances can also clog the small blood vessels that feed these organs, causing yet more tissue death.

People who abuse heroin can also die from an overdose. Heroin is considered a powerful sedative, and users can stop breathing altogether when they take high doses of heroin. At times, users can even overdose when they don’t know they’re taking a high dose of heroin. Sometimes, they believe their stash of heroin is contaminated and they inject a larger quantity as a result. They may find, however, that the drugs are not contaminated when they begin to lose consciousness. The quality is not monitored, so each hit of heroin holds the capacity to cause an overdose. In addition, according to an article published in the journal Addiction, some people abuse heroin in addition to other drugs such as alcohol and benzodiazepines. These substances also cause sedation and slow breathing, so they work in much the same way as heroin. Combining them with heroin can cause a sort of augmentation of symptoms that can lead to death.

Social Consequences

People who are addicted to using heroin face a high risk of arrest, incarceration or other forms of punishment from the justice system.

People who are charged with drug related offenses may lose their jobs as a result. In addition, since heroin is illegal, it’s expensive to purchase. There are no price controls in place, and no medical plan to pay for the drug, so heroin addicts often eviscerate their savings, drive up their sources of credit or even resort to crime to feed their addictions. As the addiction deepens, the addict begins to spend more and more time dealing with the addiction and less time with his or her family. Some addicts stop leaving the house altogether, unless they’re heading out to meet the dealer.

As a result of this lack of money, increase in theft and crime, and poor social connections, some heroin addicts become homeless. The link between homelessness and heroin is quite strong all around the world. In fact, according to news reports, four out of five homeless people in Britain are drug users. Of those who use heroin, the longer they stay homeless, the stronger their addiction will grow.

Getting Help

Heroin addiction may be serious, but it can be successfully treated.

Addiction counselors can use a combination of medications and therapy to help tackle the addiction on two fronts. The medications can help curb cravings and withdrawal symptoms, while the therapy sessions can help the addict learn how to avoid a relapse and deal with negative feelings without the help of drugs. There’s no question that this takes hard work, and the addict will need to remain determined and resolve to change for good. But, these therapies can save the addict’s life. This is hard work worth doing (see Heroin Rehab).

At Rehab International, we’d love to help you find the right program to help your loved one beat a heroin addiction. Call us today to find out more about how we can help.


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