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Heroin is an opiate drug that’s derived from morphine, which occurs naturally in the seed pod of the Asian poppy plant. Smoking, snorting or injecting delivers the drug it to the brain almost immediately. This contributes to the high risk of addiction associated with using it—about 23 percent of people who use the drug become addicted to it.

The Scope of Heroin Abuse in the U.S.

Heroin abuse has increased dramatically in the past fifteen years. While heroin used to be primarily an inner-city drug abused by young minority males, the greatest increases have occurred among young suburban women and men, privately insured individuals and people in higher income brackets. In 2011, over four million Americans aged 12 and older reported using at least once in their lifetime, amounting to 1.6 percent of the general population.

Why Heroin is So Addictive

Heroin is listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which means that it has a very high potential for addiction but no medical value. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences as well as by changes in the structures and functions of the brain that affect thought and behavior. The majority of people who are addicted to are unable to quit using it on their own, even if they want to or have tried to stop.

One reason the drug is so addictive is that it produces a highly euphoric effect, which includes a keen sense of relaxation and well-being that users often want to experience again and again. Another reason is that heroin increases tolerance very quickly, which means that almost immediately, higher doses are needed to get the same effects. That’s because the brain changes the way it functions in order to compensate for the presence of the drug in the body.

With chronic use, these changes may reach a tipping point, and soon, the brain may function more “normally” when heroin is present than when it’s not. As a result, withdrawal symptoms set in when the drug is withheld from the body. That is an indication that a physical dependency has developed, and at this point, it’s extremely difficult to quit without professional help.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

In addition to leading to addiction and dependency, chronic abuse carries with it a high risk of developing a number of serious health problems, including:

  • Blood and heart valve infections
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Chronic constipation and cramping
  • Pulmonary complications

Studies also show that the drug causes the deterioration of white matter in the brain, which can permanently affect the ability to make decisions, regulate emotions and behaviors and respond to stress. Street heroin typically contains toxic additives that clog vessels and permanently damage vital organs.

The Dangers of Heroin Overdose

One of the most dangerous health risks of using heroin is overdose. Because it’s impossible to know the purity of a dose, every time you use it, you risk overdose, which is often fatal. Between 2002 and 2013, heroin overdose deaths in the United States almost quadrupled.

An overdose is characterized by:

  • Very low blood pressure
  • A weak pulse
  • Shallow, labored breathing

In response to the high mortality rate associated with heroin overdose, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends that anyone who uses heroin—and their family members or close friends—obtain an FDA-approved, hand-held Naloxone injector, known as Evzio, from their physician. In the event of an overdose, Naloxone can be injected into the muscle to reverse the life-threatening effects of the overdose and buy time until medical personnel arrive.

Treating Heroin Abuse or Addiction

If you or someone you love chronically abuses or is addicted to heroin, you know how difficult it is to stop using it. The cravings are incredibly intense, and the withdrawal symptoms that set in when it’s withheld from the body can be excruciating.

Withdrawal symptoms of heroin can include:

  • Body aches
  • Abdominal cramp
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

The good news is that medical detox is available the first step of kicking a heroin habit through a high-quality drug treatment program. Medical detox involves administering various medications as needed during the withdrawal phase to alleviate the intensity of symptoms and shorten the duration of the detox process. Maintenance medications like methadone or buprenorphine can reduce cravings for the long-term and help wean you off the drug over time.

Once the detox process is complete, various intensive therapies may be used to help you address the issues that led to the abuse in the first place. You’ll learn to identify and change self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, gain a new self-perspective and find ways to enjoy life without drugs.

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Heroin Abuse: The Facts and Dangers
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