Health Hazards with Heroin and How to Help

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that comes from the opium poppy. Opium is grown in Asia, South America, and central America.

The drug has been illegal in the US since 1924.

Heroin comes as a white or brown powder. Sometimes, it’s found in a sticky black tar form.

 Let’s dive deeper into this devastatingly addictive opiate, then.


What Is Heroin?

Heroin is also known as brown, smack, horse, diamorphine, and diacetylmorphine, among many others.


As an opioid, heroin is used recreationally for its intense euphoric effects.

 Medical-grade diamorphine differs substantially from street level black tar heroin. The former is used in the guise of a pure hydrochloride salt, while the latter is impure and a dark, sticky gloop. Street heroin varies in terms of purity and the bulking agents used, resulting in a variable admixture.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Due to the different agents street heroin is cut with, the appearance differs from a brownish-white through to a brown powder. As mentioned, black tar heroin is sticky and much darker.


Heroin typically tastes bitter. The drug can be odorless, or it can come with a faint tang of vinegar.


Belonging to the opiate class, heroin has strong painkilling properties.


How Is Heroin Used?

Casual users often snort or smoke heroin.


The most common method delivery, though, is intravenous injection. Injecting heroin – also known as shooting up or mainlining – is also the most dangerous way of using the drug. Not only is the chance of overdose increased, but you could also catch a disease from sharing dirty needles with other users.


Whatever the method of delivery, heroin rapidly hits the brain.


It’s also remarkably easy to become addicted to heroin. You could find it difficult to stop using the drug after using it just once or twice.

Immediately after taking heroin, you’ll experience a spike of euphoria. For the next few hours, you’ll feel like the world has slowed down.

Your thoughts slow down. You may walk more slowly. Some users liken the experience to a waking dream.

Heroin serves to prevent your brain from delivering pain messages to your body. The drug also slows breathing and heart rate. If you overdose on heroin, you could stop breathing, and you may even die. 

Some people start using heroin to help them cope with depression, anxiety, or other stressors. Others arrive at heroin after first using opioid painkillers. According to one study, 75% of heroin users also have underlying mental health conditions from depression and ADHD to bipolar.


Smoking heroin provides the swiftest route of administering heroin, although injecting the drug intravenously yields a quicker increase in blood concentration.


Now you can see what heroin is and how it’s used, we’ll give you the laundry list of negative effects you can expect from using heroin, both short-term and long-term.


Heroin: Short-Term Effects


  • Euphoria
  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed and warm skin
  • Vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Arms or legs feeling heavy
  • Fuzzy head
  • Itching
  • Nodding out (dropping in and out of consciousness)


Heroin: Long-Term Effects

  • Insomnia
  • Skin infections
  • Increased chance of overdose
  • Collapsed veins
  • Infections of heart lining
  • Increased chance of contracting hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung diseases (TB, pneumonia)
  • Respiratory problems
  • Mental disorders
  • Brain damage
  • Coma
  • Compromised immune system


So, with that brief overview of heroin in place, how did we arrive at a drug this dangerous being so widely used on the streets of America?


To discover this, we need to glimpse at the sordid history of heroin.


History of Heroin

The opium poppy has been cultivated since as far back as 3400 BC in Mesopotamia.


Over the course of the nineteenth century, it was discovered that most of the activity of opium was due to the morphine and codeine alkaloids it contained.


CR Alder Wright, an English chemist, first synthesized morphine in 1874. He had been experimenting by mixing morphine with a variety of acids. After boiling up some anhydrous morphine – and alkaloid – along with some acetic anhydride, Wright ended up with what we now know as morphine diacetate or  diacetylmorphine. With the experiment finished, Wright sent the new compound for analysis.


There were no further developments in the wake of this discovery for over two decades.


In 1897, though, chemist Felix Hoffmann resynthesized the compound. He was working for Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company where he was tasked with an interesting project. His supervisor asked him to acetylate morphine to produce codeine. Codeine is found in the opium poppy, and it’s similar to morphine although not as potent and not as addictive either.


The resultant drug was named heroin from the German word for heroisch (strong or heroic).


So, although the scientists at Bayer were not the first to synthesize heroin, they determined how to make and commercialize it. In 1895, Heroin was introduced as a trademarked over-the-counter drug.


Heroin was developed chiefly to replace morphine in cough suppressants, delivering the benefits without the same intensely addictive properties. However, this party line trotted out by Bayer was not strictly true. Although advertised blatantly as a “non-addictive morphine substitute”, the product soon had very high rates of addiction amongst its users.


The drug was sold in this form until 1910.


By 1914, the US had passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. This was intended to control the distribution and sale of diacetylmorphine along with other opioids so the drug could only be prescribed for medical purposes.


The sale, importation, and manufacturing of the drug was banned in 1924. Heroin remains a Schedule I substance. This means it’s illegal for use outside medical settings.


Diacetylmorphine was banned in 1925, but the ban took several years to fully kick in. While there remained a worldwide demand for diacetylmorphine, designer drugs were created to fill this void.


By 1930, though, all analogues of diacetylmorphine were also banned. They were deemed to have no therapeutic benefit over other drugs already in use.


Resultantly, Bayer ended up losing some trademark rights to heroin.


The drug was widely used by musicians from the mid-1900s through to the 1990s without an enormous amount of stigma.


Heroin addiction today brings misery to more than a million Americans, so why is the drug still so popular despite such ruinous consequences?


Why Are More Americans Using Heroin?

With the number of US heroin users rising steadily since 2007, what’s amiss in America today?


One of the primary factors responsible for the rise in active heroin users is the ongoing opioid epidemic. Prescription painkillers like Oxycodone were aggressively marketed by big pharma, with doctors encouraged to prescribe the medication for all kinds of chronic pain. This class of drug was previously mainly used to relieve suffering in cancer patients.


So, just like the misleading Bayer campaign that brought raw heroin to the shelves of American stores, companies like Purdue Pharma – currently being forced to repay billions to the unwitting victims of the opioid epidemic – pushed opioids on the American population.


Many Americans became addicted to opioid painkillers. Often, when no longer able to refill prescriptions and with tolerance building, these users use street heroin instead. For some users, they simply become addicted to the high of opioids and start seeking out even more extreme highs in the form of heroin.


So, while not the only factor underlying more heroin users in the US, the opioid epidemic is instrumental in inflaming the issue.


The heroin overdose rate quadrupled between 2010 and 2017. Many of these deaths occurred as the drug was laced with fentanyl, a powerful and incredibly addictive painkiller.


Who uses heroin, then?


Well, although heroin was once thought of as a street drug mainly blighting urban areas, today more than half of heroin users are women with most in their late 20s, often from the suburbs or rural areas. Middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods are now just as likely to harbor heroin addicts as urban housing projects.


It’s perhaps this swing in demographics which is starting to drive the point home to Americans that heroin is a potential problem for all of us.


What to Do if You Think A Loved One Is Using Heroin

Now, if you’re reading this and starting to question whether a friend or loved one could be dependent on heroin, remember this…


A heroin user doesn’t necessarily look like they’re high on drugs. Often, they will, but certainly not in all cases. Sometimes, they may just appear sleepy or fatigued.


The key with heroin addiction is to act quickly. All aspects of the problem will be worsened the longer use continues.


You should speak with your loved one about getting treatment and starting recovery – more on that right below – but what can you do if you feel you’re witnessing a heroin overdose?


The first thing to do is act: your loved one needs treatment within minutes.


Naloxone is a medication that can be used to block the side-effects triggered by a heroin overdose, but it needs to be administered quickly. Naloxone can be administered by paramedics as a shit, and it can also be used in nasal spray form (Narcan) or in auto-pen form (Evzio).


If your loved one is overdosing, they may need more than just a single dose of Naloxone. They might also require further medical assistance.


So, if you have some Naloxone on hand, by all means use it. You should use it. You should also call 911 and ensure your loved one gets straight to the ER.


Treatment for Heroin Addiction

As should now be abundantly clear, heroin is intensely addictive. Many people who use the drug develop a tolerance, then dependence, and then full-blown addiction.


Heroin use leads to enormous problems in terms of health, home, work, relationships, as well as causing damage to society in general.


As tolerance builds, you’ll need to use more of the drug to achieve the same effect. By the time you get to this point, discontinuing use often triggers unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including:


  • Jitters
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Bone and muscle pain
  • Cold flashes
  • Uncontrollable leg movements


Usually, treatment for heroin addicted will include a combination of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and behavioral therapy.


The medications will allow your body to more easily withdraw from heroin addiction while also reducing cravings for the drug.

You can use drugs to help deal with the vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea that often accompanies detox from heroin addiction. Sleeping tablets and antidepressants can also be used to streamline the overall process and reduce discomfort. Non-opioids can also be used.


Beyond this, other medications can then be used to target the same opioid receptors targeted by heroin but without the attendant dangers.


These drugs fall under 3 main categories:

  • Agonists: Activate opioid receptors powerfully
  • Partial agonists: Milder activation of opioid receptors
  • Antagonists: Block the opioid receptors and their rewarding effects


The precise medication used will vary according to your needs.


Among the above groups, the most commonly used of these drugs are:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone



Buprenorphine (branded as Subutex) is a partial opioid agonist. It helps to minimize cravings for heroin without triggering a high. Approved by the FDA in 2002, buprenorphine became the first drug physicians could prescribe under the new Drug Addiction Treatment Act. Approval led to increased access to this treatment



Methadone is a slow-acting opioid agonist taken orally under supervision. The medication takes time to hit the brain and does not deliver a high. The medication has been used to treat heroin addiction since the 60s.


Methadone is administered in an outpatient setting.



Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that interferes with the way opioids act. Neither sedating nor addictive, you can find naltrexone as an injectable, a nasal spray, or an auto-pen.


Current research shows that MAT can be used to treat heroin addiction and opioid use disorder with few drawbacks. Using medication improves overall retention in treatment programs while reducing criminal activity and the transmission of infectious diseases.


Getting Help with Renaissance Recovery

Do you need a heroin rehab center?

If you need some advice about intervention for drug addiction, or you need to speak about rehab options for a loved one, we’re here for you at Renaissance Recovery.

For immediate help and effective, long-term heroin recovery, call us today at 866.330.9449

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Renaissance Recovery Coronavirus Policy Update

As the national pandemic continues to make it increasingly difficult for individuals to receive quality aftercare, The District Recovery Community & Renaissance Recovery has provided a solution to all those seeking long term care. We are proud to announce that we will be offering all aspects of our treatment including intimate groups, one on one therapy, and case management to individuals in all states from the comfort and safety of your home. This is a great option for clients that are in need of continued treatment, but are returning home to be with their families during this time.

The District Recovery Community and Renaissance Recovery will remain in operation during this time and continue to serve our mission of treating those suffering from alcoholism and addiction.

We encourage you all to reach out to learn more about how we can work together to ensure that our clients remain sober, safe, and continue to get the help that they need.