Facts and Effects of Heroin


What is Heroin?

Also known as: “Smack,” “Junk,” “H,” “Black tar,” “Ska,” and “Horse”

Heroin is a type of opioid drug that is partly manmade and partly natural. It is made from morphine, a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance that occurs naturally in the resin of the opium poppy plant. Heroin’s color and look depend on how it is made and what else it may be mixed with. It can be white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance called “black tar heroin.”

Heroin is becoming an increasing concern in areas where lots of people abuse prescription opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin. They may turn to heroin since it produces a similar high but is cheaper and easier to obtain. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin.

How is Heroin Used?

Heroin is mixed with water and injected with a needle. It can also be smoked or snorted.

How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

When heroin enters the brain, it is converted back into morphine. It then binds to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain and body, especially areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure.

Short-term effects of heroin include a rush of good feelings and clouded thinking. For the first several hours after taking heroin, people want to sleep, and their heart rate and breathing slow down. When the drug wears off, people may feel a strong urge to take more.

Regular heroin use changes the functioning of the brain. Using heroin repeatedly can result in:

  • Tolerance—more of the drug is needed to achieve the same “high”
  • Dependence—the need to continue use of the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms
  • Addiction—a devastating brain disease where, without proper treatment, people can’t stop using drugs even when they really want to and even after it causes terrible consequences to their health and other parts of their lives

What Are the Other Effects of Heroin?

The changes that take place in the brain from heroin use have effects on the rest of the body. Some of these effects are quite serious. In 2011, more than 250,000 visits to a hospital emergency department involved heroin.

Heroin use can cause:

  • Feeling sick to the stomach and throwing up
  • Severe itching
  • Slowed (or even stopped) breathing
  • Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis (a liver disease) through shared needles
  • Coma—a deep state of unconsciousness

In addition to the effects of the drug itself, heroin bought on the street often contains a mix of substances, some of which can be toxic and can clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidney, or brain. This can cause permanent damage to those organs.

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