What You Need to Know About Heroin

If you, a friend, or a family member are struggling with an addiction to heroin, it’s important to understand the facts about the drug. Prior to gauging how to walk to path of recovery, arm yourself with knowledge about the enemy: heroin.

A Few Facts:

  • In 2011, 4.2 million Americans aged 12 or older (or 1.6 percent) had used heroin at least once in their lives.
  • It is estimated that about 23% of individuals who use heroin become dependent on it.
  • As of 2015, an estimated 17 million people use opiates such as heroin, which together with opioids, resulted in 122,000 deaths.
  • In 2015 Afghanistan produced about 66% of the world’s opium and still remains the number one producer of heroin in the world.

What is Heroin?

woman struggling with heroin addictionPerhaps one of the most addictive drugs in the world, heroin is also one of the deadliest. Derived from morphine in the late 1800s, it is 4 times as potent and highly illegal for recreational use. It is controlled under the Schedule I and IV of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs,

Heroin is rarely sold pure and is often cut with ingredients like sugar, baking soda, and even strychnine. Part of the opiate family, heroin comes from the poppy plant produced mainly in Afghanistan and the surrounding countries. Some common names for heroin include:

  • “H”
  • Smack
  • Black tar
  • Horse
  • Boy
  • Junk
  • Skag

Although it has limited medical use as a pain reliever (including those suffering end-stage cancer or terminal illnesses), when used illicitly, heroin produces an extreme “downer” effect characterized by intense, almost transcendent, euphoria. Tolerance to heroin develops quickly and increased doses are needed to achieve the same high (thus it’s addictive properties).

The Role Heroin Plays in Society

Heroin used to be considered a drug that only people on the outskirts of society were using. It certainly was never associated with soccer moms and people with stable functioning jobs. All of that is changing due to the epidemic with prescription drugs.

Heroin in the United States

Heroin seemed to go out of style in the last decade of the Twentieth Century, but it is currently enjoying a major resurgence. As people become addicted to their doctor prescribed medications—which are usually abruptly cut off—they are desperately turning to street drugs like heroin to maintain their high.

Thus members of society that no one would suspect to be injecting drugs, are falling victim to this deadly addiction. The following are some disturbing facts about heroin addiction in America:

  • In 2013, over 700,000 Americans used heroin. (That number is more than double the amount of users in the early 2000s).
  • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, heroin use among teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 has increased by 80%.
  • The National Center for Health Statistics has released figures showing that the death rate from heroin overdoses effectively tripled between 2010 and 2013.

The other reason that heroin use in America has risen so dramatically is the fact that the supply has increased from the South. In the first decade of this century, the amount of land in Mexico used to grow opium poppies increased ten-fold. From 2007 to 2011, Mexico’s production rate of raw opium grew by 600%. Mexico is now the second-largest opium producer in the world next to Afghanistan, and it’s a lot closer to America.


Addiction to opiates is at the highest level that society has ever known. Commonly abused prescription medicines such as OxyContin, Fentanyl, and other opioid painkillers, are misused by millions of patients in America.

In an attempt to cut back on prescription medication abuse, officials have cracked down on prescriptions. Since doctors must now check patient databases to guard against multiple prescriptions, pills are getting harder to obtain.

At the same time, OxyContin has been reformulated, making it harder for addicts to misuse. To satisfy their craving for an opioid drug fix, many prescription medication addicts are turning to heroin, which offers a more intense sensation at a lower cost. Two-thirds of all heroin addicts were previous abusers of prescription painkillers.

Heroin in California

In addition to being a nationwide epidemic, heroin has always been an ongoing issue in California—especially Southern California. The following are some staggering statistics about the state:

  • In 2013, roughly 20% of primary treatment admissions in Los Angeles County were for heroin.
  • In San Diego, the number of primary treatment admissions for heroin increased from 1569 people during the first half of 2012 to 2004 people during the first half of 2013.
  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, 6.4% of all 2013 drug reports were identified as heroin, compared with 5.2 % in 2012.
  • In 2014, hospital admissions and emergency room visits in California for conditions related to heroin abuse grew by over 10%.

Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Heroin is an incredibly destructive drug that often leads to overdose and fatality. All drug addictions have harmful effects on the user, as the drug ravages both their mind, body, and spirit. Heroin is a greedy drug that destroys families and lives. The following are some common symptoms and signs that someone is addicted to heroin.

Behavioral Symptoms

Symptoms of drug abuse generally present themselves in behavior first. This can include actions like:

  • Nodding off
  • Speaking slowly
  • Missing shoelaces (used to “tie off” for shooting up)
  • Sneaky behaviors
  • Trouble with the law
  • Disorientation
  • A cycle of “hyper-alertness” immediately followed by passing out
  • Syringes and other paraphernalia lying around carelessly.
    • Metal spoons/aluminum foil/gum wrappers/straws with burn marks

Mental / Emotional Symptoms

As addiction grows, an individual will begin to show signs through their mental and emotional state. The longer a person is using heroin, the harder it will be for them to function on many cognitive levels. The following are some mental/emotional symptoms of heroin use:

  • Irritability
  • Intense fatigue
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of energy
  • Indifference
  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor judgment

Physical Symptoms

Heroin can wreak absolute havoc on a person physically. The second reason why people die from Heroin besides overdosing is from the sores and infections caused by the drug. Some common physical symptoms can include:

  • Small pupils
  • Weight loss
  • Unexplained runny nose
  • Visible needle tracks on the body (especially on the arms)
  • Open sores on the body
  • A disrupted menstrual cycle for women
  • Shortness of breath
  • A “droopy” appearance, as if the abuser’s limbs are extremely heavy
  • Dry mouth
  • Increased sleep

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Unlike most drugs, heroin cannot simply be “quit” cold turkey. Most people will need to take some form of medication to stave off the physical withdrawal symptoms.

A range of treatments, including behavioral therapies and medications, are effective at helping patients stop using heroin and return to stable and productive lives. Some common drugs used to treat heroin addicts include:

  • Buprenorphine and Methadone: These medications work by binding to the same cell receptors as heroin but more weakly, helping a person wean off the drug and reduce cravings.
  • Naltrexone: This is a drug that blocks opioid receptors and prevents heroin from having any effect (patients sometimes have trouble complying with naltrexone treatment, but a new long-acting version given by injection in a doctor’s office may increase this treatment’s efficacy).
  • Naloxone: Is a drug that is sometimes used as an emergency treatment to counteract the effects of heroin overdose.

Curious about medication assisted treatment for heroin addiction? Lasting Recovery Medical Director Dr. Kai MacDonald offers his perspective on one such drug, Suboxone, and its use for opiate dependence in this video series

Learn more about Opiate Dependence and Recovery with these helpful videos and resources.

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