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What is Heroin? How Addictive is it? 

Heroin is an illegal addictive opioid. It is derived from morphine, a drug extracted from poppy seeds. Users smoke, inject, snort, or sniff heroin. 

Pure heroin is a white powder. Other forms of the drug might be brown, black, beige, yellow, or pink.

Heroin is extremely addictive. Like all opioids, it binds to brain receptors and causes a temporary dopamine release that makes the user feel good. Repeated use of heroin results in the brain becoming dependent on the drug because it can no longer produce dopamine on its own.

For many people, a heroin addiction begins with dependence on prescription painkillers prescribed to treat a medical issue or to alleviate pain after a medical procedure. 

Once an addiction develops and the patient is no longer able to access prescription painkillers through legitimate means, they may turn to heroin to satisfy their cravings.

Not everyone who uses prescription painkillers develops an addiction, but it is a risk. This is why the use of these drugs must be carefully monitored by doctors. 

How Does Heroin Affect the Body? 

Heroin works by binding to and activating mu-opioid receptors (MORs) in the brain. Healthy, non-addicted brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine naturally. This helps with pain relief and overall feelings of well-being. 

When something external triggers the release of neurotransmitters repeatedly, the brain learns to depend on the external trigger. How quickly the brain becomes dependent depends on the substance used, how often it is used, how quickly the substance reaches the brain, and the potency of the substance. 

No matter the form or how it’s ingested, over time with repeated use, heroin use leads to addiction. 

Not only do heroin users develop an addiction, but they also experience other effects on the body, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Depression
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Sexual and/or reproductive dysfunction
  • Damage to the mucosal tissue in the nose (if snorted)
  • Perforation of the nasal septum (if snorted)
  • Scarring, collapsed veins, and various infections if injected
  • Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis B and C (if injected)

Additionally, the substances mixed in certain batches of heroin pose risks like clogged blood vessels and damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, brain, and other vital organs. Some people experience an immune reaction from exposure to these additives.

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Can You Overdose on Heroin? (+ Symptoms) 

Heroin users have a high risk of overdose. Symptoms of heroin overdose include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Gasping
  • Pale Skin
  • Bluish tint to the lips and/or fingertips
  • Unresponsiveness

The Different Types of Heroin & What They Look Like

There are several different types of heroin, including:

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is dark brown to jet black and is sticky to touch. It looks like a hard black ball and is one of the least pure forms of heroin.

Brown Heroin

Brown heroin comes in powder form. It is similar to pure white heroin but tends to have a grittier texture because it isn’t as pure. It’s usually ingested by smoking, but can be injected or snorted.

Asian Heroin

Asian heroin comes in a variety of colors, including white, beige, yellow, pink, and orange depending on where it’s from. It comes in powder form and resembles ground-up candy or chalk.

Gunpowder Heroin

Gunpowder heroin is a stickier and more potent form of black tar heroin. It has a crumbled texture similar to dried coffee grounds. It’s commonly found on the West Coast of the United States. 

Purple/Blue Heroin 

Purple or blue heroin is one of the deadliest forms of the drug. Sometimes called Purp, it is mixed with fentanyl and carfentanil, a tranquilizer used to anesthetize elephants. 

A dose of purple heroin as small as 20 micrograms – the size of a grain of sand – is enough to kill a user.

White Heroin 

White heroin is heroin in its purest form. The whiter the color, the purer it is.

Pills and Tablets

There is also a pill or tablet form of heroin. The pills are light blue and are called “Mexican Oxy” or “heroin pills.” These pills are deadlier than regular heroin because they contain a significant amount of fentanyl. 

These pills are sold as a version of oxycodone, despite being three to six times as dangerous as their prescription counterparts. Users mistake them for oxycodone or hydrocodone.

What Does Heroin Smell & Taste Like?

In its purest form, heroin has very little odor. Heroin’s smell is usually due to substances it’s blended with or manipulation of the drug in other ways. This usually makes it smell like vinegar because manipulation of the pure form of the drug makes it more acidic. Some people detect a vitamin or medicinal smell. 

Pure heroin tastes bitter. Cutting heroin with other substances affects its taste. Cutting it with something acidic creates an acidic flavor, while cutting it with sugar makes it sweet. Black tar heroin has a chemical taste and is relatively impure. 

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How is Heroin Injected into the Body? 

Users inject heroin into the body using a needle into a vein, muscle, or under the skin. Injection into a vein is called “mainlining” or “intravenous or IV use.” When injected under the skin, it is called “skin-popping.” 

What Does a Heroin User Look Like?

Anyone who uses heroin is at risk of developing an addiction. However, some factors that increase the risk of developing an addiction include:

  • Family or personal history of addiction to any substance
  • Heavy use of tobacco
  • History of anxiety or depression
  • Exposure to high-risk environments
  • History of risk-taking behavior
  • Use of prescription painkillers

More so than many other drugs, heroin use triggers a variety of physical symptoms that worsen over time. 

Visible physical symptoms of heroin use include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slow breathing
  • Itching

Symptoms of Heroin Use & Addiction

Symptoms of heroin use and addiction include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Agitation
  • Drowsiness
  • Constricted pupils
  • Needle marks (if injecting the drug)
  • Runny nose (if snorting the drug)
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Constipation
  • Confused or disoriented feelings
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Reduced pain response
  • Changes in appearance
  • Decline in personal hygiene
  • Behavior changes
  • Financial issues
  • Problems at work or school
  • Engaging in risky, dangerous activities
  • Inability to stop using heroin even if there is a desire to do so

Treatment for Heroin Use & Addiction 

Like many addictive drugs, treatment for heroin use and addiction varies from person to person and is most effective when used in combination with one another. The two most common heroin addiction treatment approaches include pharmacological and behavioral methods. 

Medication used to treat heroin addiction helps control symptoms of withdrawal including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and pain. 

Symptoms are the most intense during the early stage of withdrawal when the body is detoxifying. The more comfortable a person is during this phase, the better the chances of successful recovery.

In addition to medication, heroin addiction treatment includes behavioral approaches. These help people with substance use disorder identify their drug use triggers, develop coping skills to deal with cravings, and understand that relapse is part of recovery, and know how to deal with it. Behavioral treatment includes individual therapy, group therapy, and long-term support.

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Resources

MORE
LESS

(1) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Effects Does Heroin Have on the Body?” National Institute on Drug Abuse

(2) “Asia’s Heroin Is Now Sold in Lemon Yellow, Cotton-Candy Pinks.” NBC News.

(3) “Heroin Pills Are Now a Reality - Is Andrew Kolodny Finally Happy?” American Council on Science and Health, 20 Feb. 2019. 

(4) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Heroin.” Drugabuse.gov, Nov. 2019.

(5) CDC. “Today’s Heroin Epidemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 July 2015.

(6) National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Is Heroin and How Is It Used?” Drugabuse.gov, 2018.

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