Do You Know the Considerable Risks of Heroin Abuse?

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Do You Know the Considerable Risks of Heroin Abuse?

Heroin abuse has increased dramatically in America in recent years. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), more and more heroin is seized by agents and police each year. If you ask any person if heroin is addictive and dangerous, they will likely say that it is. Why are more Americans abusing heroin if it is so destructive to their health, happiness, and well-being?  It’s hard to believe, but they probably don’t know all the considerable risks of heroin abuse.

How Heroin Works in the Brain

Heroin is an opiate which is developed from the drug morphine which comes from the opium poppy. The chemical process used and the way in which heroin is administered affects the speed at which it works within the body. This process triggers some of the risks of heroin abuse.

Heroin is transmitted to the brain any time an individual uses it by shooting up, snorting, or smoking it. Once absorbed, heroin is converted back to morphine. It connects with molecules in the central nervous system called opioid receptors. These receptors are located throughout the brain and body in areas which manage the perceptions of pain and pleasure, blood pressure, sexual arousal, and breathing.

The way that morphine and heroin are built makes them chemically similar to neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) called endorphins. These are the chemicals that deal with pleasure and deaden the pain. They are sometimes called the body’s “natural opiates.” Opiate drugs act like incredibly powerful endorphins. They are more intense and powerful than the body’s naturally produced endorphins. Another neurotransmitter affected by drug use is dopamine – the “reward” chemical. But heroin and opiate use do a lot more than trigger chemicals.

The Heroin “Rush

The “high” one experiences depends on how the heroin is administered. One of the most common ways to administer heroin is intravenous. Users who are shooting up often feel a surge of euphoria called a “rush.” This is usually accompanied by dry mouth, flushed skin, arms and legs feeling “heavy,” and poor mental functioning. This “rush” usually lasts one or two minutes.

After this initial rush, the experience differs depending on how the heroin was taken. Intravenous users go “on the nod” by feeling alternately wakeful and drowsy. Another reaction heroin abusers have had during this period is a drowsy, satisfied state, and a sense of distance from the world around them. This high can last about four or five hours.

Addicts build up tolerance to the effects of heroin and some no longer experience the initial “rush” at all. They may take heroin only for “relaxation” purposes or to battle withdrawal symptoms.

First-time users who shoot up often experience a much different reaction than long-term addicts. Their experiences usually include major abdominal discomforts, nausea, and vomiting. This initial discomfort is sometimes enough to put off the individual from further experimentation with heroin. However, the drug is extremely addictive; even after using it a few times a person can become addicted.  This is one of the most common risks of heroin abuse.

Coming Down” from Heroin

Part of the reason heroin is so addictive is the physical and mental problems experienced when the individual stops using it. Heroin withdrawal can cause severe discomfort to a user.

Here are some of the most common withdrawal symptoms users and addicts experience when they try to stop using heroin:

  • A runny nose and eyes
  • Flu-like symptoms and fever
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle cramps and aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps and spasms
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, mood changes
  • Drug craving
  • Hallucinations
  • Aspiration

These symptoms can last for about a week to ten days. Heroin detox should be done under the care of a trained medical professional or addiction specialist.

Because heroin affects the pleasure centers of the brain, training in new pleasurable activities is needed to help the individual return to a drug-free life. Rehab is always recommended after detoxing from heroin. This gives the brain time to re-calibrate and gives the person a way to discover what drew them to heroin and find healthy alternatives for handling their problems.

Some of the Risks of Heroin Abuse

There are considerable risks of heroin abuse, and there are good reasons people instantly think of it as deadly. Unfortunately, these facts are either not known to some or are not enough to deter them from trying the drug.

Some of these risks of heroin abuse are:

  • It is an illicit drug, and as such, the buyer never knows what is being purchased. It could be laced with a stimulant or even fentanyl, a powerful medical analgesic that is 80-100 times more potent than morphine. Mixing opiates such as heroin or morphine with a stimulant like cocaine are particularly dangerous.
  • After getting off heroin, if the recovering user tries to use it again in quantity similar to what they had become accustomed to, the chances of overdose increase.This is because the body, having detoxed, is now much more sensitive to drugs and poisons.
  • Injection is the most deadly form of administering heroin as it enters the central nervous system (CNS) immediately, in addition to risks of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and infections from needle sharing and dirty needles.
  • Overdose and death from heroin and opiates are usually the results of respiratory depression, wherein the breathing rate slows down, and insufficient oxygen is gotten into the lungs, as well as too much carbon dioxide. A user can also go unconscious and choke on their vomit or otherwise injure themselves and be unable to regain consciousness.
  • Long-term heroin addiction is extremely debilitating on the user physically, mentally, and spiritually. Some of the effects are sexual dysfunction, bacterial infections, abscesses, collapsed veins, severe weight loss, heart infections, liver and kidney disease – to name a few.

The Opiate Epidemic

Prescription painkillers are generally in the opiate class and are often referred to as “opioids.” They are either synthetic or opium derivatives.

The report from SAMHSA points to another disconcerting issue: Those who turned to heroin very rarely – if ever – return to prescription pain medication. This means once they get to heroin, they are hooked until they die, somehow quit, or go to rehab – whichever comes first.

A 2013 report provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicates that Americans between the ages of 12 and 49 who have abused prescription painkillers are 19 times more likely to try heroin than other individuals in the same age group. The report also states that 79.5% of people using heroin for the first time had previously abused prescription painkillers.

This all points to a trend that news outlets like NPR have taken notice of: People addicted to painkillers are turning to heroin as a cheaper alternative. This is feasible because drugs like OxyContin, codeine, Vicodin, and Percocet (hydrocodone) are all in the same category as heroin. OxyContin (oxycodone) has been referred to as synthetic heroin or “hillbilly heroin” only now heroin is often cheaper and more widely available. One opiate can often be substituted for another without experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

The recent problem of prescription drug addiction may turn us back to a situation that was thought to be mostly held in check. But with help from detox centers and rehab facilities, as well as drug awareness reaching young people, this potential epidemic can still be fought effectively.  Hopefully, awareness and education will be enough to make more people understand the considerable risks of heroin abuse.


  • – Drug Policy Alliance
  • – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association

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