Heroin Addiction: The Facts


What Type of Drug is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the seed of the Asian poppy plant. Heroin usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance, known as “black tar heroin.”

Heroin was first extracted by the German company Bayer in 1898. It was considered a better painkiller than morphine as well as a highly effective cough suppressant. The word “heroin” comes from the German word “heroisch”, meaning heroic, powerful.

Street names for heroin include “smack,” “H,” “skag,” and “junk.” The scientific name for heroin is diacetylmorphine.

The Effects of Heroin

After an intravenous injection of heroin, users report feeling a surge of euphoria (a “rush”) accompanied by a dry mouth, hot flushes, heaviness of the hands and feet, and clouded mental functioning. Following this initial euphoria, the user alternates between a wakeful and drowsy state.

Heroin has a rapid effect, beginning with euphoria and feelings of peace and contentment. It makes the user indifferent to hunger and sexual urges, and masks all inhibitions, fears and remorse – shielding the user from his or her immediate environment, both internal and external. This makes heroin one of the most addictive of all the illicit drugs.

The painkilling effect of heroin is three times stronger than morphine.

Short-Term Effects

  • “Rush”

  • Depressed respiration

  • Clouded mental functioning

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Suppression of pain

Long-Term Effects

  • Addiction

  • Infectious diseases, for example, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C (due to shared needles)

  • Collapsed veins

  • Bacterial infections

  • Abscesses

  • Infection of heart lining and valves

  • Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems

Signs of Heroin Abuse

When an individual is addicted to heroin, their brain is negatively affected in many ways. People who are addicted to heroin are likely to show some or even all of the following signs:

  • Fatigue, followed by patterns of alertness

  • Shallow or laboured breathing

  • Injection wounds

  • Infections on the skin from injections, boils

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Small, constricted pupils

  • Appearance of “distant” gazing eyes

  • Lack of motivation

  • Distance from old friends and family members

  • Disorientation or dizziness

  • Difficulty speaking, slurred speech

  • Lack of memory, forgetting things or not remembering important events or matters

  • Lack of interest in the future or what comes next

  • Unkempt self-image, lack of hygiene, loss of self discipline.

The Health Risks of Heroin

Heroin abuse is associated with a number of serious health conditions, including fatal overdose, miscarriage, and infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation and gastrointestinal cramping, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the user as well as from heroin’s effects on breathing.

In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin often contains toxic additives that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage to vital organs.

One of the most detrimental long-term effects of heroin use is addiction itself. Heroin also produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are powerful motivating factors for compulsive use and abuse. As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin abusers gradually spend more and more time and energy obtaining and using the drug. Once they are addicted, the heroin abusers’ primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs. The drugs literally change their brains and their behavior. Heroin addicts tend to eat very little and develop all sorts of illnesses due to malnutrition.

Physical dependence develops with higher doses of the drug. With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal, which in regular abusers may occur as early as a few hours after the last administration, produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flushes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), kicking movements (“kicking the habit”), and other symptoms.

Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week. Sudden withdrawal by heavily dependent users who are in poor health is occasionally fatal. The physical symptoms of withdrawal can be largely avoided at Castle Craig Hospital where a carefully prepared heroin detoxification is planned for each patient.

Other symptoms include:

  • Restlessness

  • Insomnia

  • Goosebumps

  • Tremors

  • Irritability

  • Joint and muscle pain

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Profuse sweating

  • Chills

  • Runny nose

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Urinary incontinence

  • Shortness of breath

  • Involuntary muscle spasm

Reactions usually peak in a few days and can linger for several weeks, but the craving – what addicts themselves call the “love affair” – can last for months.

Heroin is eliminated as morphine in sweat, saliva and breast milk. In pregnant women it crosses the placenta into the foetal bloodstream: pediatricians report that a growing number of such infants are born with withdrawal symptoms.

Treatment at Castle Craig

Castle Craig has over 20 years experience of helping heroin addicts through the difficult period of detoxification, and easing them into psychological treatment. As a residential addiction treatment clinic, Castle Craig is an ideal location for recovery from heroin addiction.

Please visit our Treatment section for more details about our rehabilitation programme.

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