KNOW THE FACTS
Also known as: Smack, Junk, H, Black tar, Ska, and Horse
Heroin is a highly addictive drug made from morphine, a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance that is extracted from the resin of the seed pod 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 part of a class of drugs called opioids. Other opioids include some prescription pain relievers, such as codeine, oxycodone (OxyContin), and hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin). These drugs are chemically similar to endorphins, which are opioid chemicals that the body makes naturally to relieve pain (such as after exercise).
Because of where opioid receptors are in the brain, heroin and other opioid drugs also activate the brain’s reward center, causing the “high” that puts the user at risk for addiction. In an overdose, it can also cause a person to stop breathing, which is often fatal.
Heroin use and overdose deaths have dramatically increased over the last decade. This increase is related to the growing number of people misusing prescription opioid pain relievers like OxyContin and Vicodin; many who become addicted to those drugs switch to heroin because it produces similar effects but is cheaper and easier to get.
In fact, nearly 80 percent of people who use heroin report having first misused prescription opioids. However, only a small portion of people who misuse pain relievers switch to heroin. Both heroin and opioid pill use can lead to addiction and overdose.
Heroin is mixed with water and injected with a needle. It can also be smoked or snorted. Users sometimes combine it with other drugs, such as alcohol or cocaine (a “speedball”), which can be particularly dangerous and raise the risk of overdose.
When heroin enters the brain, it attaches to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors are in many areas of the brain and body, especially areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure, as well as a part of the brain that regulates breathing.
Short-term effects of heroin include a rush of good feelings and clouded thinking. These effects can last for a few hours, and during this time people feel drowsy, and their heart rate and breathing slow down. When the drug wears off, people experience a depressed mood and often crave the drug to regain the good feelings.
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 have trouble stopping using drugs even when they want to and even after it causes terrible consequences to their health and other parts of their lives. Because of changes to how the brain functions after repeated drug use, people that are addicted crave the drug just to feel “normal.”
Opioid receptors are in the brain, the brain stem, down the spinal cord, and in the lungs and intestines. Thus, using heroin can result in a wide variety of physical problems related to breathing and other basic life functions, some of which may be very serious.
Heroin use can cause:
- feeling sick to the stomach and throwing up
- severe itching
- coma—a deep state of unconsciousness
- dangerously slowed (or even stopped) breathing that can lead to overdose death
- increased risk of HIV and hepatitis (a liver disease) through shared needles