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What is Heroin

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive, opiate drug that has resulted in widespread abuse in the nation and around the world. Heroin is typically sold as a white or brownish powder, or as the black sticky substance known on the streets as "black tar heroin." Although purer heroin is becoming more common, most street heroin is "cut" with other drugs or substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. Heroin abusers are never certain about the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, and therefore constantly put themselves at risk of overdose or death. Common street names for heroin are "smack", "junk", "horse", "skag", "H" and "China white".

Heroin can be injected, sniffed/snorted, or smoked. Soon after someone uses the drug, it crosses the blood-brain barrier where it is converted to morphine and binds rapidly to opioid receptors. Individuals feel an almost immediate surge of pleasurable sensation, also known as a "rush" or a "high". The intensity of the rush depends on how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the natural opioid receptors. Heroin is particularly addictive because it enters the brain so quickly. A heroin rush is typically accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itching.

After the initial heroin rush, heroin users will usually become drowsy for several hours. Mental function will be clouded by heroin's effect on the central nervous system and cardiac function will slow. Breathing is also severely slowed, a dangerous side effect which can sometimes be fatal. Heroin overdoses are common due to the uncertainty that users are faced with in regards to potency and purity of the drug.

Someone who injects the drug may do so up to four times a day. Intravenous injection provides the greatest intensity and most rapid onset of euphoria (7 to 8 seconds), while musculature injection produces a relatively slow onset of euphoria (5 to 8 minutes). Sniffing or smoking heroin results in effects which are usually felt within 10 to 15 minutes. Although smoking and sniffing heroin do not produce a "rush" as quickly or as intensely as intravenous injection, studies show that all three forms of heroin administration are addictive.

Injection continues to be the most common method of administration among heroin addicts. However, a shift in heroin use patterns has been observed recently, shifting from injection to sniffing and smoking. Within this shift comes an even more diverse group of users. While older users (over 30) continue to be one of the largest groups of heroin users, several sources report an increase in new, young users across the country who are being lured by inexpensive, high-purity heroin that can be sniffed or smoked instead of injected.

Heroin addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain. Heroin abuse also produces tolerance and physical dependence, which are powerful motivating factors for compulsive use and abuse. As with any addictive substance, heroin addicts gradually spend more and more time and energy obtaining and using the drug. Once someone is addicted to heroin their primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs.

As an individual's body adapts to the presence of heroin and dependence builds, withdrawal symptoms may occur if use is reduced abruptly. Heroin withdrawal can occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Typical heroin withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), and leg movements. Major heroin withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. Some heroin addicts have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months.

Individuals who inject heroin often share needles and other injection equipment, put themselves at risk of contracting HIV and other infectious diseases. Injection drug use is a factor in an estimated one-third of Americans who infected with HIV. In fact, drug abuse is the fastest growing category for the spread of HIV in the nation. Long-term use of heroin by injection may also result in serious health consequences, including scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, and liver or kidney disease.

Heroin addiction is almost impossible to overcome on one's own due to the power that it can have over an individual's thinking and behavior, not to mention the physical hold that the drugs takes on its users. There are several heroin drug treatment options available in many areas of the nation that will assist with detox and withdrawal and complete rehabilitation. Contact a professional drug treatment counselor to find out what drug treatment options are available in your area.