Heroin Info Facts

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an extremely addictive opiate.

Heroin (diacetylmorphine) was developed an analgesic alternative to morphine, and was initially marketed as a less addictive substitute to other opiate pain relievers. At the turn of the 19th century, some doctors and pharmacists were giving heroin as cure to those with morphine addictions.

American doctors no longer use heroin as a pain reliever due to its addictive nature and the dangers of abuse and diversion, but heroin remains used for analgesia in some countries.

Heroin is produced from opium poppies and derived from morphine. The synthetic altering of the morphine molecule into heroin significantly increases its potency by weight.

The U.S. Controlled Substances Act bans the sale and possession of the drug – heroin cannot legally be used for any purpose in the United States. Despite serious legal consequences associated with the use and procurement of heroin, nearly four million Americans have used the drug at least once, and about 100,000 Americans will use heroin for the first time this year.

Medical grade heroin is a white powder. Illicit heroin in America may be white, off-white or brown powder, or a black tar-like substance. Substances used to dilute pure heroin change the color away from pure white. The purity and potency of heroin sold in America can vary greatly, adding significantly to the challenges of correct dosing and to the risks heroin overdose.

How is Heroin Used?

Heroin users smoke, snort, or inject the drug. In previous decades, American heroin was not potent enough for snorting, but today's heroin has a higher potency and can be snorted -- a means of administration that is popular with new users who are afraid of needles and the risks of IV drug use. Unfortunately, with the development of an opiate tolerance, many people move from snorting heroin to injecting the drug to maximize the potency and potential of the high. About two-thirds of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction inject the drug.

What Are the Effects of Heroin?

Heroin creates an intense feeling of euphoria (a rush) followed by hours of serene and drowsy well being. Heroin also works as a potent analgesic, and people on heroin will feel little pain. A heroin high lasts typically from four to six hours, and most heroin addicts use the drug three or four times a day.

Heroin users quickly develop a tolerance to the effects of the drug and need to use increasingly greater quantities to get high (and to avoid withdrawal symptoms). Heroin addicts incur significant expenses each day to support their heroin habit, and this often leads to criminal activities to finance the costs of heroin.

High doses of heroin can slow breathing, and high enough doses of heroin can stop respiration completely. Regular heroin users often show cognitive declines (confusion and cloudiness) from their use.

What is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is an extremely addictive drug, and even casual or recreational users run a real risk of addiction.

Physical Dependency

Using heroin daily for only a couple of weeks can lead to the development of a tolerance to the drug. The brain responds to regular heroin use with physical (structural) changes, and as a consequence of these changes, users start to require increasingly greater doses of heroin to achieve the same results. As an additional consequence of these structural changes in the brain, regular heroin users who develop a tolerance will need continuous drug administration just to keep from feeling sick.

After a couple of weeks of regular heroin use, users become physically dependent, and avoiding heroin withdrawal sickness becomes a significant motivator to continuing use.


Heroin also creates a powerful feeling of euphoria and pleasurable well being. Regular heroin use almost invariable leads to compulsive heroin addiction, in which attaining a heroin high becomes the central focus of life. A hallmark of heroin addiction is the ability to ignore or minimize the negative consequences of use, and to focus entirely on the pleasures of consumption.

A heroin addict endures both a physical dependency on the drug and a psychological compulsion to continue getting high.

What is Heroin Withdrawal?

Once tolerant to the effects of heroin, the abrupt cessation of use, or even a sudden reduction in the dose used, will lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms last for between five and seven days in the primary (intense) phase and can include symptoms such as the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Leg restlessness (the spastic kicking of the legs experienced during heroin withdrawal led to the expressions "kicking heroin" or "kicking cold turkey")
  • Pain and cramping
  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose

The intensity of heroin withdrawal symptoms will depend on the length and severity of the heroin usage. Heroin withdrawal is a very tough and uncomfortable period, and heroin addicts start to feel mild withdrawal symptoms only hours after their most recent dose has worn off. The fear of withdrawal pains is a significant motivator to keep using the drug.

What Are Some of the Risks and Dangers of Heroin?

Heroin use can and does kill, and the risks of use are many -- and begin even with casual experimentation.

Risks of heroin use:

  • Addiction -- It takes only a couple of weeks of regular use to become physically dependent on heroin.
  • Overdose – An overdose of heroin can kill, and since the potency of street heroin can vary dramatically, you never know how much actual heroin you are using at any given time.
  • Infectious disease – IV drug users show greatly increased rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infection. In some areas of the US, more than 75 percent of IV drug users test positive for Hepatitis C.
  • Arrest and Incarceration – Not only is the possession of heroin against the law, the costs of a heroin habit force a lot of people into criminal activities.
  • Other medical risks – Heroin addicts face malnutrition, lowered immune functioning, cognitive declines, skin abscesses, heart infections ,and many other medical risks.

What Are the Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction?

Addiction treatment works, and heroin addicts have several treatment options. Longer participation in any form of treatment is associated with significantly better outcomes.

Two of the most common types of opiate addiction treatment include:

  1. Assisted medical detox followed by inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment.
  2. Medication management of withdrawal symptoms with drugs such as methadone or buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex).

Getting Treatment

An addiction to heroin can happen very quickly -- and once addicted, the realities of physical dependency make it very tough to stop using on your own.

A life that is focused on getting heroin and getting high is not, in itself, much of a life worth living – but the good news is that you don’t have to live this way anymore. Treatment works, and you don’t have to do it alone. If you're worried about the detox period, you can use methadone or buprenorphine to avoid the pain of withdrawal.

Heroin addiction treatment works, it doesn’t have to cost a lot, and you can get started today. For more information about heroin treatment options in your area, call the National Resource Center at 888-471-0431.

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