Short-Term Effects Of Heroin Addiction

After a short time, regular heroin use can result in addiction. Formal treatment is usually required to treat heroin addiction and help prevent relapse.

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Short-Term Psychological Effects Of Heroin

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that threatens the health and wellbeing of thousands of people everyday. Effects of heroin can set in quickly, however the rate at which the effects begin depends on the method of use (snorted, smoked, or injected). Each method causes the chemicals to reach the brain at different times.

Those who smoke or snort heroin will feel its full effects between 10 to 15 minutes after taking it. While injecting heroin into a large muscle takes effect in five to eight minutes, injecting heroin into the blood takes effect in seven to eight minutes.

Once heroin enters the brain, it is chemically converted into morphine and quickly binds to opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS). The addictive nature of heroin is made even more intense due to the “rush,” or feelings of euphoria, it produces.

Short-Term Physical Effects Of Heroin

People who smoke or inject heroin often experience a short period of intense pleasure, followed by a sense of contentment and a physical state of relaxation. These feelings usually last three to four hours. In addition to feelings of euphoria, people who use heroin can alternate between alertness and drowsiness.

Shortly after taking heroin, a person’s thinking can become clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system. In some people, breathing may be slowed to the point of respiratory failure.

Other short-term effects of heroin can include:

  • dry mouth
  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe itching
  • heavy sensation in arms and legs
  • reduced pain sensations
  • lethargy

After the effects of heroin have decreased in intensity, the body may start to crave more of the drug. If an individual has developed a tolerance to heroin and does not continue to take it, they will likely experience some form of withdrawal.

The severity of withdrawal will depend on the duration of addiction and the amount of heroin they are used to taking. People who are used to taking larger doses of heroin experience more severe withdrawal symptoms than those who are used to taking smaller doses.

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How Addictive Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive substance. First synthesized from morphine in 1874, heroin was marketed as a safer form of morphine. It quickly became a widely used drug and could be found in common medicines like cough syrup.

By 1914, it was understood that heroin was highly addictive and so it was banned as a part of the Harrison Narcotics Act. Today, heroin is an illegal substance abused by many. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the number of heroin users in the U.S. doubled between 2005 and 2012.

There are misconceptions regarding the risks associated with the various methods of administration. For example, some people believe that smoking heroin reduces the addictive qualities of the drug, although this is not true.

One of the more dangerous aspects of heroin is the ability of a person abusing it to develop both a tolerance and physical dependence in a short amount of time. When someone experiences heroin dependence, they feel uncomfortable and sick once the drug leaves their system.

Dependence on heroin is also expressed by withdrawal symptoms that can begin a few hours after the last dose. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and unpleasant, and may mimic flu-like symptoms.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • restlessness and discomfort
  • pounding or racing heartbeat
  • anxiety
  • shaking
  • sweating
  • shivering
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • inability to sleep
  • pain and aches in the muscles and bones

Although individual withdrawal processes will vary from person to person, typically symptoms of heroin withdrawal will peak one or two days after the last dose and last for a week or so.

Another factor that may contribute to heroin abuse is its availability. From 1991 to 2011, the amount of prescriptions dispensed in the U.S. nearly tripled from 76 million to 219 million, according to the NIDA.

Other Potential Effects Of Heroin

Due to heroin being produced illegally, it is common for it to contain additives such as sugar, starch, or powdered milk. These additives can result in another level of risk to heroin abuse, as they can cause blockages to form in blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage.

People abusing heroin by injection have an increased likelihood of sharing their drug injection equipment. While under the influence of heroin, they can experience impaired judgment and decision-making that may lead to increased risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis.

Another potential effect of heroin abuse is overdose. Heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce life-threatening side effects and possibly death. When someone overdoses on heroin, they may experience labored or stopped breathing.

Trouble breathing can decrease the amount of oxygen that can reach the brain, a medical condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term mental effects and potentially affect the central nervous system, resulting in coma or permanent brain damage.

The Link Between Heroin Abuse And Prescription Opioids

Heroin and prescription opioid pain relievers are both classified as opioids, and both of their euphoric effects are produced by binding to the same brain receptors. Opioid effects vary according to the drug, and they are determined by the way the drug is taken and its duration in the body.

A study of people suffering from heroin abuse in the Chicago metropolitan area identified three main paths to heroin addiction. The first path is prescription opioid abuse to heroin use, the second is cocaine use to heroin use, and the third is polydrug use to heroin use.

An estimated four percent of people transition from prescription opioid abuse to heroin abuse. Another study looking at a larger sample found that people who first abused prescription opioids did so on average two years prior to turning to heroin abuse.

Frequent prescription opioid users, and those diagnosed with dependence or abuse of prescription opioids, are more likely to switch to heroin. In fact, dependence and abuse of prescription opioids has been associated with a 40-fold increased risk of dependence on or abuse of heroin, according to the NIDA.

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Heroin Addiction Treatment

Short-term and immediate effects of heroin may require medically-assisted detox. This process usually involves a medication called naloxone which blocks heroin from interacting with the opioid receptors in the brain. Typically, naloxone is used as an emergency antidote to an overdose, as it has the potential to save people on the brink of respiratory failure.

No matter what stage of abuse or addiction, formal treatment can provide a person the assistance needed to finally quit the drug and reclaim control over their life. Treatment often begins with detox, the stage of recovery that involves unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when individuals are most likely to relapse. Having the support of formal treatment can mean the difference between a successful recovery and an unsuccessful one.

To find out more about heroin addiction and treatment, reach out to us today.


National Center for Biotechnology Information—The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment
University of Maryland, Center for Substance Abuse Research—Heroin

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