The United States has been in a growing epidemic of addiction and overdose for more than a decade. The opioid crisis has contributed to a nationwide public health issue, and a host of factors causes it. However, one of the most significant causes is the high availability of heroin all over the United States.
Heroin is an illicit opioid that’s relatively cheap and easy to find. It can also be powerfully addictive and deadly in high doses. Heroin addiction often leads to relapse, especially without treatment.
However, with professional treatment, heroin addiction can be overcome, leading to lasting recovery. Learn more about heroin addiction, how it works, and how it can be safely treated.
Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that’s primarily used as an illicit recreational drug in the United States. The term “semi-synthetic” refers to the way the drug is made. It is made from morphine, which is found in opium poppy plants naturally. When you take heroin, your body metabolizes it into morphine, which has potent effects on the brain and body. However, heroin is stronger than morphine, especially when it is injected.
When taken orally, heroin converts to morphine very quickly. However, when it’s injected, heroin can get to the brain faster than morphine because it is fat-soluble and can get past the blood-brain barrier easily. That means it delivers a potent opioid to the brain faster and more effectively than morphine before converting.
Heroin has a range of effects, including sedation, pain relief, and euphoria. However, it can also cause adverse effects, including drowsiness, dry mouth, muscle weakness, flushed skin, and shallow breathing.
Heroin is one of the most easily accessible illicit drugs in the United States. The influx of heroin into the U.S. has led to high availability, especially in large coastal cities and cities near the southern border. High availability of heroin can lead to increased addiction and overdose rates in an area.
Heroin is like any opioid. In appropriate doses, it may cause some adverse effects like constipation and drowsiness. But in high doses, it becomes much more dangerous. An overdose of heroin can cause a loss of consciousness and respiratory depression, which is when your breathing slows or stops. Frequent use of heroin, or high doses, will likely lead to substance use problems.
A heroin overdose can be fatal unless you receive treatment immediately. An opioid overdose can be reversed with a drug called naloxone, which is an opioid antagonist. It kicks opioids off their receptors and blocks them from binding, which prevents them from achieving their normal effects.
Using illicit heroin is dangerous because it is rarely pure. It is often cut with other substances or mixed with other drugs. It can be extremely difficult to know if the dose you’re taking is appropriate for your body. In fact, you may get used to heroin that’s cut with inert substances like baking soda. This may lead you to believe that your average effective dose is normal, but when you get a less adulterated bag of heroin, your normal dose may be way too high.
Illicit heroin is also frequently mixed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that’s many times stronger than heroin. In fact, it can cause a deadly overdose in doses as small as 2 mg (milligrams) in the average adult. That’s about the weight of a single snowflake.
The illicit nature of heroin also causes other problems like an increased risk of contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
Addiction is a disease that causes changes in the reward center of the brain. Your brain is designed to encourage you to repeat important life-sustaining activity through neurochemical reward. This part of the brain helps to motivate you to do things like eat food, find comfortable shelter, and other important tasks, even when it is not convenient. The reward system works with feel-good chemicals like dopamine, which can boost your mood and lead to feelings of satisfaction.
Drugs like heroin that cause an overwhelming sense of euphoria often trigger the release of dopamine, and they also mimic natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins. After high doses or long-term use, your brain may struggle to tell the difference between normal, healthy rewarding activities and the powerful, rewarding effects of heroin. When you feel stressed, bored, or otherwise unfulfilled, your brain will recall that heroin can cause a rewarding effect and motivate you to take it through cravings. These cravings may become powerful compulsions that get out of control.
Addiction is identified by compulsive substance use that continues despite harmful consequences. Chemical dependence also plays a role in substance use problems. Dependence involves the acute effects a drug has on your brain as your neurochemistry adapts to the presence of the drug. When you stop taking heroin, you’ll feel the physical consequences of a sudden chemical imbalance, and those uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms further motivate you to continue using to feel normal.
Heroin is one of the most widespread and frequently used illicit drugs in the United States. Heroin is trafficked into the United States via black market trade and transnational criminal organizations. Heroin is in high demand for its ease of accessibility and euphoric high. Many heroin use disorders start with the use or misuse of prescription opioids. When prescriptions become too expensive or too difficult to obtain, people often turn to illicit heroin.
According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 808,000 people used heroin within the past year of the survey. The same year, 14,996 people died in overdoses involving heroin. In 2018, heroin overdose decreased in the U.S. for the first time in over a decade, but the numbers are still high.
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Heroin addiction can be challenging to overcome, especially if you try to do it on your own. Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain, and it’s characterized by compulsive use despite consequences. Addiction can quickly get out of control, affecting multiple aspects of your life.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, it is important to note that addiction can be treated. Though it’s a chronic disease, personalized treatment and therapy can help you achieve lifelong sobriety.
Addiction treatment often starts with detox, the highest level of care. Medical detox involves medically managed inpatient treatment with a focus on getting you through the withdrawal phase of recovery safely. Opioids like heroin aren’t known to cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, but they do cause very uncomfortable symptoms.
Opioid withdrawal can cause severe flu-like symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. This can become dangerous if you can’t keep water down and become dehydrated. Opioid withdrawal also comes with powerful cravings that can be difficult to get through without relapsing.
If you complete detox, or if you don’t need it, you may move on to inpatient services with medical monitoring or clinically managed services. Inpatient treatment is useful to people with high-level medical, psychological, or social needs.
When you’re able to safely live on your own without significantly jeopardizing your sobriety, you may enroll in an intensive outpatient or outpatient program. In outpatient treatment, you will continue to receive therapy and other services during the day while you live independently at night.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
ASAM. (n.d.). What is the ASAM Criteria? Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/resources/the-asam-criteria/about
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 08). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. Retrieved September 04, 2020, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-opioids-heroin/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
SAMHSA. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States. Retrieved August 21, 2020, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf