Heroin is an addictive substance, but the addiction is treatable. However,
heroin use and abuse is increasing, according to a survey conducted in
2011 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHA).
They estimate that more than 600,000 people each year use heroin, with
the number steadily on the rise. The increase is most evident among young
adults ages 18 to 25 years. Young adult use also increased, going from
50,000 per year to almost 90,000. Also, over 4 million Americans ages
12 and older reported using heroin at least once during their lives, with
more than 23 percent becoming regular, dependent users.
Opium, Morphine, and Heroin Use
An opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine, heroin is a naturally
occurring substance that comes from the seed of the Asian poppy plant.
Heroin is sold as a white or brown powder or as “black tar heroin,”
which is a black sticky substance. People with a heroin addiction need
to seek medical care from healthcare providers and rehabilitation (rehab)
centers. A combination of medical and behavioral therapies are used to
integrate the addict back into society so he or she can live a productive
and positive life.
Opium addiction was a real problem in the U.S. during the 1850s. The solution
for this problem was to substitute opium with a less addicting substance
– morphine. However, doctors found that morphine was an equal addicting
substance. After the morphine problem was discovered, experts tried another
non-addictive substance – heroin. However, heroin was found to be
more addictive than opium and morphine. The mortality rate of heroin addicts
is estimated to be twenty times greater than the non-user population,
as of the late 1990s.
Use and Effects of Heroin
Heroin is often injected but can be smoked, snorted, or inhaled. These
routes of delivery allow the drug to reach the brain quite rapidly, and
this puts the user at serious risk for addiction.
Heroin addiction is considered to be a chronic relapsing disease that causes brain changes
and uncontrollable drug-seeking behavior regardless of the known consequences.
When heroin reaches the brain tissue, it is then converted back to morphine,
binding to opioid receptors (molecules on cells). The specific receptors
are located in the brain and they perceive pain and issue a reward. Located
on the brain stem, these receptors affected by heroin can lead to suppression
of respiration, lowering of blood pressure, and drowsiness. Intravenous
(IV) injectors of heroin report surges of “rush,” which is
a euphoria accompanied by warm skin, dry mouth, and a drowsy state. Regular
use of heroin changes brain functioning, and tolerance often occurs. This
means the user must have more and more of the drug to experience the euphoria
Treatment for Addiction
If one is addicted to heroin, there are numerous treatment options, such
as medications and behavioral therapies. These are often used in combination
to assist the addict in recovery. Commonly used medications include methadone
and buprenorphine, which bind to the same receptors in the brain but more
weakly than heroin. This reduces the drug craving. Also, naltrexone is
a drug used to block the opioid receptors entirely, preventing the addict
from having the “high” or effects.