According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), heroin use in the United States has been on the rise since 2007, primarily among 18 to 25-year-olds. This drug is not only addictive but carries a high risk for death by overdose and other serious complications. Read on to learn more about the scope of the heroin problem in the U.S. and the effects caused by using this drug.
What is Heroin?
Part of the opioid class of drugs, it is derived from the Asian opium poppy plant. A white or brown powder, it can be snorted, smoked, or injected. Two to three times more potent than morphine, heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, meaning it has no legitimate medical use.
The Scope of the Problem
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 4.2 million Americans have used heroin at least once, with 23 percent of those who try the drug becoming addicted. Many experts indicate that prescription pain medications such as OxyContin, which are also opioids, serve as a “gateway” to heroin abuse. Because the effects are similar and heroin is much cheaper on the street than pills, many who become addicted to opioid pain medication go on to use heroin. This may account for the staggering number of new users. Approximately 156,000 people used the drug for the first time in 2012, up from just 90,000 people in 2006. While heroin abuse was once considered an urban problem, the drug is now readily available in the suburbs and beyond, with these far-flung communities being the location of much of the new growth of the heroin epidemic.
How Heroin Affects the Brain
When heroin enters the brain, it binds to cells called opioid receptors. These are not only responsible for the body’s feelings of pain and pleasure but also control critical life processes such as blood pressure and respiration. The drug acts on the opioid receptors and may depress breathing and other functions of the central nervous system, block pain signals, and activate the brain’s “pleasure center.”
When it is ingested, users first experience a feeling of intense euphoria, followed by a drowsy, semi-awake state. In addition to these short-term effects, however, has long-term effects on brain function. Over time, the body develops a tolerance, which means that you need more of the drug to experience the same effect, increasing the risk for overdose. Users often become dependent on the drug, meaning they will experience severe physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms upon attempting to quit using, including restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, and cold flashes with goose bumps. Serious deterioration of brain function can occur with continued use, including difficulty with decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations. When used chronically, it actually changes the physiological structure of the brain, causing long-term mental illness and trouble functioning.
The Physical Effects
Overdose is the most pronounced risk of heroin abuse, typically caused by the depression of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Other physical effects include collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation and gastrointestinal cramping, and liver or kidney disease. Those who inject it are also at increased risk for contracting serious, bloodborne illness, such as hepatitis or HIV. In fact, 70 percent of new cases of hepatitis C each year are among intravenous drug users. In addition, street drugs are often cut with dangerous substances, such as strychnine or other poisons, which in and of themselves can cause serious health effects. And because the user is never sure of the purity of heroin purchased on the street, overdose is a constant danger for even the most experienced user. Pregnant women who use the drug are at risk for miscarriage as well as having a baby born addicted to the drug.
Treatment for Addiction
Intensive inpatient treatment programs are recommended for those who are addicted to heroin or other opioids. These programs typically include a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and other methods for helping people overcome the addiction and stop using heroin permanently. Research has shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for heroin abuse, designed to restructure the user’s expectations around use of the drug and increase their ability to function without substance abuse. Although the risk for relapse is high for heroin addicts, this risk does decrease for those who complete a program of this kind.
If you or a loved one are suffering from heroin addiction, help is available. Talk with your doctor or a trusted family member, who can help you find the appropriate treatment resources.
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