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Heroin Abuse Fact Sheet

Heroin Abuse



An opium derivative, heroin as we know it today was developed in 1874 by processing the opiate morphine. Originally, heroin was brought to existence in the hopes of it being a less addictive, safer substitute for morphine. But unfortunately, since then it has evolved into a highly dangerous and addictive street drug that’s used by young people nationwide.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in 2015 nearly 5.1 million Americans used heroin, and that number is on the rise – fatal heroin overdoses increased more than six-fold between 2002 and 2015. Worryingly, studies have also found that young people aged 18-29 are at significantly higher risk for heroin use.

We now know that many people find their way to heroin after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers. Opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin cause similar effects to heroin, and after the prescription runs out or they can’t afford it, some people turn to street drugs to satisfy their dependence. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin report that they started by misusing prescription opioids. For teens and young adults, this often results from a sports-related injury or surgery that leaves them on prescription painkillers for an extended period of time.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Heroin comes in many forms and colors. However, based on geographic location, purity and potency can be determined by different characteristics. In the eastern United States, heroin most often appears in the form of a white powder. If the substance is less pure, it takes on an off-white or brown color. In the western US, heroin is usually darker in color with a solid, sticky form to it, giving it the name “black-tar heroin”.  In their pure form, neither have a scent unless smoked. Heroin that is less pure gives off a vinegary scent.

Pure heroin is hard to come by on the streets. Often, drug dealers mix it with other substances to turn a bigger profit. This process causes the drug to be unpredictable and possibly toxic. Substances used to cut heroin include baking soda, laundry detergent, rat poison and caffeine, among many others.

How Young People Use Heroin

Heroin can be smoked, snorted or injected. Injecting heroin directly into the bloodstream (“mainlining”) isn’t common for first-time users, but as they grow accustomed to the effects of snorting or smoking, they may crave a stronger high. Injecting results in an even more immediate and intense experience of the euphoric sensations. Users do this either subdermally (under the skin), intramuscularly (into the muscle) or intravenously (into a vein).

Some of the common street names for heroin include:

  • Smack
  • Brown Sugar
  • Mud
  • Dope
  • White
  • Snow
  • Chiba

Effects of Heroin Use

After heroin has been ingested, it’s broken down and binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This process creates an intense, pleasurable sensation that’s also accompanied by warm flushing of the skin and heavy-feeling extremities. The level to which these effects are experienced depends on how much is taken and its potency.  

There are also negative, immediate, short-term effects of heroin use such as nausea, vomiting and severe itching.  After the drug begins to wear off, users may feel drowsy and clouded. As heroin is a respiratory depressant, it also causes extremely slow breathing, which can lead to coma or permanent brain damage and is the leading cause of fatal overdose.

Risks of Heroin Abuse

As mentioned above, one of the major risks of any street drug is the inability to know exactly what it contains and what its potency is. Heroin is especially dangerous in this manner because of its potency in even very small amounts – using the wrong amount can lead to overdose and death. Most heroin overdoses occur because the drug has slowed the user’s breathing down so much that not enough oxygen is reaching the brain – a condition called hypoxia. Other signs that might point to someone overdosing include:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Bluish coloring of fingernails and lips; discolored tongue
  • Weak pulse
  • Stomach spasms
  • Delirium

One of the reasons heroin is notoriously dangerous is because of its extremely addictive nature. Its chemical makeup and the pathways it creates within the brain rapidly lead to dependence – relying on the drug to function normally. Heroin users’ brains essentially come to believe that they need heroin to operate, and require higher and higher doses to obtain the same effects.

For those who choose to stop using heroin, withdrawal becomes another concern. In as little as a few hours after the last hit, symptoms like cold flashes, vomiting, uncontrollable leg movements and severe muscle pain can emerge.

Another risk for someone who chooses to inject heroin is the transmission of disease. Those who share needles put themselves at high risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C. When cravings are all the user can think about, risk of infectious disease is of little concern if it means they can meet their substance needs. Other long-term effects of heroin use include:

  • Insomnia
  • Abscesses
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications
  • Development of mental illnesses
  • Damaged tissue
  • Collapsed veins

Heroin Use Among Teens and Young Adults

According to the CDC, the rate of heroin use has more than doubled in young adults aged 18 to 25 in the past decade.  While most teens and young adults don’t typically start experimenting with substances by using heroin, if they’ve already begun experimenting elsewhere, it could lead to trying more dangerous drugs. At this time in their lives, social value is of the highest importance. Young people want to feel like they’re accepted. While this is normal at their stage of development, it can lead to risk-taking behavior that carries long-term consequences.

Teens and young adults are at a significantly higher risk for addiction because their brains haven’t yet fully developed. A phenomenon known as neuroplasticity allows their brains to create neural pathways quickly. If a drug like heroin gets introduced during this process, these pathways can be established after just one try.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

If you’re concerned that your child might be using heroin, keep an eye out for these signs of heroin use:

  • Visible injection sites
  • Constricted pupils
  • Significant weight loss
  • Deterioration of personal appearance
  • Tremors
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Not caring for personal hygiene
  • Inexplicable need for money
  • Always wearing long sleeves and pants, even in warm weather
  • Sudden changes to friends and/or hobbies

What to do if You Think Your Child is Using Heroin

While heroin abuse is undoubtedly concerning, the good news is that effective treatment is available. Because the drug is so addictive, the withdrawal process is difficult and requires incredible support from friends and family. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child is to be there for them and steer them in the right direction. Know that you can contact Sandstone Care at any time with questions or to see if one of our programs is the right fit for your family. Call us today at 888-850-1890.

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