The extraction of natural morphine from poppy seed pods is synthesized into the highly addictive substance known as heroin. As the most popular illegal drug sold on the street, heroin may be sold in the form of white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as “black tar.” This rapid acting opiate may be inhaled, smoked or injected and is usually mixed with other substances to reduce the potency and increase the street dollar. Since the war in Afghanistan, America has been inundated with a high purity grade of heroin and heroin addiction has increased markedly. Users of this dangerous drug are at an extremely high-risk for death related to overdose, chronic infections and the failure of internal structures. In addition, the chronic use of heroin has been shown to damage brain cells and cause similar structural changes related to dementia.
Short-Term Effects of Heroin
The immediate effects of heroin use include a sensation that is described as a surge of extreme pleasure known as the “rush,” followed by a feeling of tremendous euphoria and sedation. Heroin immediately passes the blood-brain barrier and rapidly stimulates the reward center of the brain as it mimics the body’s own natural endorphins. It is common for the user to experience an itching sensation and warm flushing of the skin accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Following the euphoria, the person may experience a sleep-wake state and eventually enter a phase of deep sedation referred to as “nodding off.” The heart rate slows and breathing may become so shallow that the user may stop breathing and experience the effects of a serious or fatal overdose.
Depending on the amount of chronic use or the extent of the physical dependence, an addicted person may desire the need for additional heroin on awakening. Although not everyone may become physically addicted to the substance, certain individuals may become psychologically dependent and desire the “high” for self-medication or to treat underlying mental illness.
The Long-Term Effects of Heroin
As the user requires an increase of the drug to achieve the same affects of euphoria, the body develops a tolerance and becomes physically dependent on the substance. Addiction is the result of the brain becoming dependent on the narcotic, and eventually the person is unable to function without the chronic use of the substance. In addition, the user may no longer achieve the euphoria after injecting the drug and may use heroin only to prevent the severe and painful withdrawal symptoms that occur when the drug is stopped abruptly. Depending on the individual’s tolerance and severity of addiction, symptoms of withdrawal usually appear within 6 to 48 hours and may include:
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Cold Sweats and Goose Bumps on the Skin
- Abdominal Cramps and Diarrhea
- Muscle Spasms and Bone Pain
- Hallucinations and Extreme Anxiety
- Involuntary Leg Movements
The Health Risks of Heroin Addiction
Besides the risk of an eventual fatal overdose, the long-term effects of chronic heroin use cause injury and create a high-risk for the contraction of serious disease. Multiply injections can destroy the structure of veins and infect the surrounding tissues of the injection site. Bacterial abscesses may spread to the heart and cause serious cardiac valve disorders and may be fatal. Needle sharing among addicts has long been known as a risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
In addition, street heroin may contain poisonous additives such as strychnine, baby laxative, chalked power and other ingredients that do not dissolve properly in the blood and cause clogging of the veins and arteries. The blood supply to the kidneys, liver, lungs and other internal organs may be damaged and the user will experience systemic infections and possible fatal organ failure. Liver and kidney failure is a frequent occurrence in chronic heroin users. Also, people may suffer from debilitating arthritis due to the long-term exposure to noxious chemicals used in the production and composition of street acquired heroin.
The Adverse Effects on the Brain
Normally, the body responds to pain and stress from the reward center of the brain with morphine-like brain chemicals that are called endorphins. These natural chemicals are also evoked by the body when a person experiences an exciting event, achieves a sense of accomplishment or derives sexual satisfaction. Endorphins bind with opiod receptors that cover the brain and stop the neurons from firing. This binding calms the brain and releases a powerful experience of euphoria. The chemical properties of heroin are very similar to the structure of endorphins and the brain will react with a powerful sensation of euphoria on injection or inhaling. The user will feel as if all their needs are met and experience a warm feeling associated with extreme well-being.
As the user becomes dependent on heroin, the physiology of the brain is changed forever. The difficulty to overcome the addiction of heroin is directly related to the irrevocable response of the opiod receptors intense desire for the substance. When the brain adapts and becomes physically dependent on heroin, the drug may become the most important substance perceived for survival. This phenomenon may be expressed in heroin addicts that forego food and neglect their health in their search for the substance.
The brain may also be damaged from the exposure to the poisonous additives of street heroin and the consistent inflammation of the tissues from the heroin itself. Younger, as well as long-term addicts may show signs of dementia, poor recall and have difficulty processing new information. In extreme cases of those who have been subjected to years of abuse, the brain has been shown to exhibit similar physical changes compared to Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic inflammation due to excessive heroin use causes protein to build up and plaques to form on the surface of the neurons and creates degenerative changes in the brain.
Substance Dependence and Addiction
Although the mechanism of addiction is still not completely understood, researchers continue to investigate what effect heroin has on the brain chemistry. Substance dependence creates a high probability for users to contract illness, experience a fatal overdose, suffer from substantial brain damage and sustain injury to the inner organs and the circulatory system. Regardless of health risks or condition, substance dependence on heroin continues to propel the addict to use. At a certain point in dependence, addicts no longer experience a high but continue to use heroin to stop the uncomfortable and painful side effects of withdrawal.