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Heroin: Health Effects and Addiction Treatment

Author: Thomas C. Weiss : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2015-01-17 : (Rev. 2017-02-21)

Synopsis:

It is estimated that approximately 23% of people who use heroin become dependent on the drug.

Main Digest

Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, which is a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Heroin commonly appears as a brown or white powder, or as a black and sticky substance known as, 'black tar heroin.' in the year 2011, 4.2 million people in America over the age of 12 had used heroin at least one time in their lives. It is estimated that approximately 23% of people who use heroin become dependent on the drug.

Heroin is a drug that can be injected, smoked, or inhaled by sniffing or snorting. All three means of abusing the drug deliver it to a person's brain very quickly, which contributes to its health risks and its high risk for addiction. Addiction is a chronic relapsing disease caused by changes to the person's brain and characterized by uncontrollable drug-seeking, despite the consequences.

Effects of Heroin on the Brain

When heroin enters a person's brain it is converted back into morphine. Morphine binds to molecules on cells known as, 'opioid receptors.' The receptors are located in a number of areas in a person's brain and body, particularly those involved in the perception of pain and reward. Opioid receptors are also located in a person's brain stem, which controls automatic processes crucial for life such as arousal, respiration and blood pressure.

Overdoses of heroin often times involve suppression of a person's breathing. An overdose can affect the amount of oxygen that reaches a person's brain - a condition referred to as, 'hypoxia.' Hypoxia can have both short and long-term neurological and psychological effects, to include coma and permanent damage to the person's brain. Following an intravenous (IV) injection of heroin, people report feeling a surge of euphoria or, 'rush,' accompanied by:

After the initial sense of euphoria, the person goes, 'on the nod,' which is an alternately wakeful and drowsy state. Users who do not inject heroin might not experience the initial rush, yet the other effects are the same.

Researchers are also looking into the long-term effects of opioid addiction on a person's brain. One result is tolerance, in which more of the drug is required to achieve the same intensity of effect. Another result is dependence, characterized by the need to continue using heroin to avoid symptoms of withdrawal. Studies have shown some deterioration of the white matter in a person's brain because of heroin use, something that might affect decision-making abilities, responses to stressful situations, as well as a person's ability to make decisions.

HIV, HCV and Injection Drug Use

People who inject drugs are at great risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C (HCV). The reason why is because diseases are transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids, something that may happen when sharing needles or other injection drug use equipment. HCV is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States of America. HIV, and less often HCV, may also be contracted during unprotected sex, something that drug abuse makes more likely.

Due to the strong link between drug abuse and the spread of infectious diseases, drug abuse treatment may be an effective way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. People in drug abuse treatment, which often times includes risk reduction counseling, stop or reduce their drug use and related risky behaviors, to include unsafe sex and risky injection practices.

Additional Health Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin use is associated with several serious health conditions, to include spontaneous abortion, fatal overdose and infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. Chronic heroin users might develop infection of their heart valves and lining, collapsed veins, abscesses, gastrointestinal cramping and constipation, as well as kidney or liver disease. Pulmonary complications, to include various types of pneumonia, might result from the poor health of the heroin user as well as from heroin's effects on a person's breathing.

Along with the effects of the drug itself, heroin purchased on the street often times contains toxic additives or contaminants. The additives or contaminants can clog blood vessels leading to a person's lungs, brain, or kidneys causing permanent damage to vital organs in the user.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Chronic heroin abuse leads to physical dependence, a state in which a person's body has adapted to the presence of the drug. If a person who is dependent on heroin either reduces or stops using heroin abruptly, they might experience serious symptoms of withdrawal. The symptoms, which may start as soon as a few hours after the person last used heroin, may include:

Heroin users also experience severe craving for the drug as they withdraw, something that may precipitate continued abuses of the drug or relapses.

Despite the risk of spontaneous abortion, heroin abuse during pregnancy, along with related factors such as poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care, is also associated with low birth weight - an important risk factor for later developmental delay. In addition, if the mother is consistently abusing heroin the infant might be born physically dependent on the drug and may suffer from, 'neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a drug withdrawal syndrome in infants that requires their hospitalization. According to a recent study, treating opioid-addicted pregnant mothers with buprenorphine can reduce NAS symptoms in babies while shortening their stay in the hospital.

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