Heroin is an illegal opioid substance that comes from the poppy plant. It acts in similar ways on the body as other opioid drugs, like prescription painkillers. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on it, making it one of the most addictive street drugs. In 2011, 4.2 million people in the US had used heroin at some point in their lives. The drug generally is presented as brown or white powder, or as a sticky black substance.
Heroin can be used in a number of ways. It can be smoked, injected, or inhaled by sniffing or snorting it. Regardless of how it is used, the substance reaches the brain incredibly quickly, causing almost immediate effects. Heroin is converted into morphine when it reaches the central nervous system, which connects to receptors that block pain and cause a rush of pleasant feelings. This is part of what makes heroin highly addictive. In addition to dependence and addiction, heroin use can have hugely negative impacts on physical health. Some of these health effects vary between methods of use.
Health Effects of Snorting and Smoking Heroin
Heroin can be very hard on the body, causing damage to major organs that is sometimes irreversible. Some of the general physical health effects of heroin include insomnia, chronic constipation, lung diseases resulting from depressed respiration, neurochemical imbalances leading to mental health disorders, and sexual dysfunction. Heroin bought on the street can also contain substances that are not easily dissolved and can clog blood vessels when injected. This can lead to a lack of blood flow to major organs, resulting in tissue death. Chronic users may also have collapsed veins, chronic bacterial infections, and abscesses.
Snorting and smoking cocaine can have specific negative impacts on the respiratory system. According to NIDA, snorting heroin can lead the delicate tissues within the nose to become damaged or torn. People who abuse the drug in this way often have chronic nosebleeds and other related health issues.
Inhaling substances can also cause tissue damage and death within the lungs. Pneumonia and other lung-related complications are also common among people who abuse heroin in these ways. Heroin depresses respiration, which can complicate lung problems resulting from inhalation.
Heroin inhalation can be especially dangerous for anyone with a pre-existing lung condition. A study published by the journal Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine reported that heroin inhalation could trigger severe and potentially deadly asthma attacks. Long-term drug abuse and chronic respiratory problems can lead to acute respiratory failure.
When to Seek Treatment for Heroin Abuse
Drug abuse can have devastating effects not only on an individual’s physical and mental health, but also on the person’s functioning and behavior. Loved ones can often observe changes in behavior that result from a drug problem. Unusual changes in mood or sleeping patterns, stealing or borrowing money, and unexplained health problems can all be warning signs that your loved one may have a drug problem.
An addiction to heroin requires intervention by a professional medical or mental health professional. Behavioral therapy and various medications can be used to treat this heroin addiction. A combination of counseling and medication is typically most effective in sustaining long-term recovery. The entire process of recovering from heroin abuse takes time – it is an ongoing and often lifelong process – but with long-term commitment and help, lasting sobriety is possible.