November 5, 2020
Heroin is one of the most notorious illicit drugs. It is similar to other opioids like opium and morphine, as likewise, it is derived from the resin of the poppy flower. Created as a substitute for morphine addicts (itself developed as a substitute for opium addiction), it became a problem on its own.
Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs there is. This is particularly amplified by the fact that it is also one of the most dangerous drugs there is. The health effects that heroin use can have on addicts are numerous. Even from short-term use, heroin is dangerous.
While still used for medical purposes (such as pain relief) in certain countries, it may lead to serious consequences when used recreationally. It can cause significant damage to many systems of the body.
By going through this article, you can learn what withdrawal symptoms or side effects to look out for. This way, you can know when it is time for you to get help. You can learn more about heroin and how it slowly destroys the body, as well as how a heroin treatment program can help you get back on your feet.
How is heroin administered?
Heroin comes in different forms, and can be administered via several routes, but none of these numerous forms make it a safe drug. It remains highly addictive in any form. It can destroy addicts physically, psychologically, and socially.
Before getting into the health risks of heroin, the routes by which it can be administered are important. This is because many of the consequences of heroin are directly related to its administration. This is particularly true for the intravenous route, which is when the heroin is injected into a vein.
There are five main routes by which heroin can be administered. These are the following:
- As an injection: This route, known as the intravenous route, is perhaps the most popular means by which addicts use heroin. Heroin comes as a solid in most cases, and requires dilution before use. The act of injection, and the hygiene of the paraphernalia, are major risks for heroin diseases. Addicts prefer injected heroin because of a faster high.
- As an inhaled powder: Also known as insufflation, this involves snorting heroin powder similar to cocaine. Heroin does not always come as a powder, so it may need to be crushed. After this, the addict uses any kind of tube to inhale it directly into the nasal cavity, where it is absorbed through the mucus membrane.
- As an inhaled vapour: This is referred to as smoking, though it does not involve actually burning the heroin. Heat is applied to the heroin indirectly, and the fumes it gives off are inhaled.
- As an ingested substance: Though not preferred, addicts may administer heroin by swallowing it. It is much less of the desired effect this way, so addicts tend not to use it in this manner.
- As a suppository/pessary: Referred to colloquially as plugging. This involves administering heroin by either the anus or the vagina. The heroin will be diluted similar to the way it is done prior to intravenous administration. It can then be pushed with a syringe. It will be absorbed through the mucus membranes at the site of administration, which is responsible for quicker onset. In some cases, when not diluted by the addict, the heroin powder is rubbed directly on the mucous membranes.
Short-term and long-term effects of heroin use
Heroin is a very dangerous drug, and the effects it can have can be very serious. Some of the adverse health effects of heroin can feature shortly after use, while others may show after months or years of heroin abuse.
Short-term effects of heroin use
The effects that heroin has over the short-term period are wide-spread in the systems that they affect. The following are some of the symptoms that may arise shortly after heroin use.
- Loss of appetite
- Severe itching
- Decreased brain function (mental fog)
- Flushing and warmth of the skin
- Muscle weakness
- Slowed breathing
- Slowed cardiac function
A person does not need to use heroin for a long time before it starts to pose a threat to their life. Reduced respiratory and cardiac function, which occurs as a short-term effect of heroin use, can lead to death. This will happen when the patient is not breathing well enough to provide the body with oxygen. When the brain does not receive enough oxygen for a long enough period of time, it can lead to permanent brain damage.
Long-term effects of heroin use
Heroin’s long term effects are very serious, and when left unchecked, several of them can ultimately result in death. These dangers of heroin can result from either changes that heroin use makes on systems of the body, or are acquired from intravenous heroin use. These include the following:
- Collapsed veins (swelling and blockage due to continuous injections)
- Vasculitis (infection of blood vessels)
- Thrombosis (formation of clots within blood vessels)
- Bacterial endocarditis (infection of the heart valves)
- Hepatic (liver) and gastrointestinal:
- Hepatitis B and C
- Decreased liver function
- Hepatocellular cancer (due to hepatitis B and C)
- Central nervous system:
- Degenerative changes in the brain, leading to poor decision-making, behavioural changes, and cognitive impairment
- Toxic effects from heroin contaminants
What are the infectious diseases that heroin can cause?
Heroin addicts typically flock together for the abuse of the substance. Addicts prefer injecting heroin as the onset is faster than other routes. During these periods, intravenous drug paraphernalia is shared among the users. There is no consideration for sanitation, so a needle that one addict uses is passed straight to the next user. This predisposes heroin addicts to contracting blood-borne diseases. Essentially any disease that can be passed through the blood can be gotten provided that a needle is passed from an infected person. However, due to how they can eventually become fatal or seriously reduce quality of life when untreated, the main three of importance are hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.
Hepatitis B associated with heroin use
Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver caused by a virus of the same name.
This infectious disease can be either acute or chronic. Acute infection will lead to a condition known as acute viral hepatitis, which is inflammation of the liver. The symptoms seen with this are:
- General body aches and weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
- Jaundice (yellowness of the eyes)
Chronic infection will have no symptoms or cause chronic hepatitis – long-term liver inflammation. This can eventually become cirrhosis, which is a condition where liver tissue is replaced with fibrotic tissue. The chance of having liver cancer is greatly increased in the presence of hepatitis B.
Hepatitis B infection is usually cleared by the body itself, but in some people it is not. This leads to chronic infection, which can eventually cause liver cancer. Hepatitis B infection can be managed, but there is no absolute cure.
Hepatitis C associated with heroin use
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It is spread in the same manner as hepatitis B: contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids.
HCV can also be acute or chronic. Majority of patients with acute infection are asymptomatic, but symptoms that do develop are similar to those of hepatitis B.
Unlike hepatitis B which the body usually clears on its own, 80% of people with hepatitis C progress to the chronic stage. There tend not to be many symptoms during this phase. However, significant complications can arise, including:
- Fatty liver changes
- Liver cancer
HIV caused by heroin intake
Although the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, can be transmitted in several ways, heroin addicts mostly get it from needles reused from other users with HIV.
HIV is a virus which shuts down the body’s immune system. As a result, this condition is characterized by an array of infections. There are no absolute symptoms for HIV, but the patient’s body will essentially ‘pick up’ any pathogens it is exposed to. When left untreated, HIV is frequently paired with AIDS that is a set of symptoms and illnesses which are a result of an immune system seriously damaged by HIV.
AIDS can present with some life-threatening conditions. This includes cardiovascular diseases, brain damage, lung diseases, and cancers.
While there is no absolute cure for HIV, antiretroviral therapy is able to almost completely suppress the levels of the virus in the body. Medications should be used for life, however.
What are the effects of heroin on the liver?
The liver is one of the organs in the body that heroin use can essentially shut down if you give it enough time.
The major risk to the liver from heroin use is based on the potential for acquiring infections like hepatitis. Hepatitis B and C can eventually lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
There is little evidence to support that heroin itself is toxic to the liver. However, it is sold on the street mixed with other contaminants, which can be hepatotoxic and cause direct liver damage.
What are the effects of heroin on the nervous system?
Heroin activates certain receptors in the brain which lead to the production of dopamine and other chemicals. These substances give a pleasing sensation which causes the euphoria. This is the main reason why addicts use heroin. But when the body begins to tolerate heroin, it produces less of these chemicals on its own. In the drive to feel the same level of pleasure, the addict craves heroin and ultimately uses it again.
This is one of the effects that heroin has on the brain. It alters the brain’s reward pathway. Besides that, it depresses central nervous system function, which leads to slowed breathing. Heroin is often combined with alcohol and other drugs that have strong sedative potential. Consistent slow breathing can affect how the brain receives oxygen. This leads to brain damage over time. Higher amounts can cause permanent brain damage, which can lead to death.
What are the effects of heroin on the heart?
Heroin effects on the heart are due to the presence of contaminants in the heroin. These contaminants are sometimes not water soluble, which can cause obstruction in vessels. This can restrict blood flow to other organs, which includes the heart, and can cause tissue death when they are deprived of blood.
The potential for introducing infection during intravenous use is also culpable. Poorly sanitized needles can introduce microorganisms which cause a disease called infective endocarditis. This is an infection of the inner lining of the heart and the valves. This can cause numerous symptoms including shortness of breath, muscle pain, swelling, fatigue.
This severely impacts the ability to do strenuous work.
In addition to infective endocarditis, the patient may have the following adverse effects:
- Vasodilation: Widening of the blood vessels. This results in lowered blood pressure
- Bradycardia: Reduced heart rate. Paired with vasodilation, the body will struggle to pump blood adequately to all parts of the body. This can result in dizziness, fainting, fatigability, and shortness of breath.
- Irregular heart activity: The heart normally beats at a set rhythm. However, with consistent heroin use, it may begin to beat erratically. This arrhythmic beat can result in ineffective pumping of blood.
- All these factors together can result in poor blood supply to the heart itself. This can lead to myocardial infarction, or a heart attack. Without prompt emergency treatment, a heroin user can die from this.
Frequently Asked Questions About Heroin Addiction
Does heroin addiction have withdrawal symptoms?
Yes, it does. All addictive substances will present with withdrawal symptoms when they are stopped. This is because the body struggles to compensate for the changes it has made to itself due to the drugs. The drugs previously filled that role, but without them there, the body starts to malfunction. These symptoms for heroin include:
Do I need treatment for heroin addiction?
Theoretically, it is entirely possible for a heroin addict to quit and stop heroin on their own. However, in the real world, it does not usually go that way. Withdrawal symptoms are extremely distressing, and cravings are strong. The social circle of an addict can also negatively affect the desire to quit. Without specially planned intervention, the addict usually goes back to the drug. This is why treatment programs that help walk the path to freedom under the guidance of doctors are very important. They ease the process for the patient by using medication and other therapy to reduce withdrawal symptoms and detoxify the body from harmful substances.
When should I start heroin addiction treatment?
If you or a loved one is addicted to heroin, there is never too early to start. Heroin is one of the most devastating drugs. Getting addicted to heroin can destroy a person’s life if left unchecked. Many of the described complications of heroin addiction can reduce a person’s quality of life significantly, and may eventually result in death.. Getting ahead of them is important to ensure that the patient remains in the best health possible, and also help them integrate into a healthy society.
Getting treated for heroin addiction is the right step to take to keep yourself at your best. A 7 day heroin treatment program may be all you need. In some cases, an extended 14 day heroin treatment program can get you back on the right path. The therapy involves ultra rapid detox and all the procedures are painless for the patient.
Published in November 5, 2020