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 addicted, the abusers’ primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs.

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 spasms

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.

Health and Social Risks of Heroin Use

Heroin use can lead to a number of serious health complications. There is a high risk of overdose when taking the drug; too much could easily induce respiratory failure, and cause the user to enter a coma. The most common method of taking the drug is by injection, and this can cause a number of problems, including collapsed veins and infections. Sharing dirty needles can spread diseases such as HIV/AIDs and hepatitis C.

More health consequences of using cocaine over a long period of time include liver and kidney dysfunction, as well as pulmonary illnesses such as pneumonia. Malnourishment is another common health problem afflicting heroin users because the drug suppresses appetite.

The highly addictive nature of heroin, means that the drug user may soon prioritise it above every other aspect of their life. Heroin users may steal from family and friends to fund their habit, and sacrifice their relationships for their habit. They may become unable to maintain a steady job, damaging their career prospects too.

Heroin Detox

At Castle Craig, we believe that abstinence is the only antidote to addiction. As soon as the patient arrives at our rehab centre, they begin a period of heroin detox. The residential nature of our treatment means that they can join in with the programme of therapy as soon as they are physically able.

When going cold turkey, the patient can experience a range of severe withdrawal symptoms. These can begin just a few hours after the heroin user takes the last dose of the drug. The strongest symptoms will affect the patient between 48-72 hours after the drug was last ingested. These generally subside in about a week, if the patient does not consume any more heroin during this time.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include diarrhoea, throwing up, cold flushes and insomnia, as well as strong cravings for more heroin. Attempting to detox from heroin suddenly, and without close medical supervision, can prove dangerous or even fatal.

Within our residential facility, the patient is closely monitored by our team of friendly and highly trained medical staff. During detox, they may be given replacement medication depending on their physical and psychological condition. If so, this will be administered in smaller and smaller doses, until the patient is no longer dependent on any substances. At this point, they are ready to begin the recovery process.

Sitting peacefully

Within our residential facility, the patient is closely monitored by our team of friendly and highly trained medical staff. During detox, they may be given replacement medication depending on their physical and psychological condition. If so, this will be administered in smaller and smaller doses, until the patient is no longer dependent on any substances. At this point, they are ready to begin the recovery process.

Residential Rehab for Heroin Addiction

Our residential rehab programme has been developed over 30 years of successfully treating patients with drug and alcohol addiction problems. Our approach targets physical, psychological and spiritual well being. Patients are immersed in a personalised programme of group therapypersonal therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy. Where appropriate, we also offer grief therapy and trauma therapy.

Our complementary therapies help patients to reconnect emotionally with both themselves and their surroundings. They include equine therapymindfulness meditationdrumming therapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Long term heroin abuse can physically harm the user’s body. To begin to heal this damage, we provide a programme of healthy, balanced meals and encourage regular exercise.

Relapse Prevention for Heroin Abuse

We continue to support each patient after they have completed their treatment with us. We provide them with a two year, personalised continuing care plan, access to weekly group therapy sessions, and a series of teletherapy sessions. We also help them to engage with local peer support groups, such as Narcotic Anonymous (NA).