Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive drug that’s processed from morphine, which naturally occurs in certain varieties of the poppy plant. Heroin works in the brain to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. The effects of heroin include a surge of pleasure followed by several hours of drowsiness, slowed mental function, and reduced heart and breathing rates. Heroin is extremely addictive due in part to its euphoric effects and in part to the fact that it produces an extreme degree of tolerance very quickly, which means that it will require increasingly larger doses of heroin to achieve the same effects.
Heroin abuse has long been on the rise in the U.S. The number of people who used heroin for the first time in 2012 was 156,000—almost twice the number of those who used it for the first time in 2006, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse¹. Repeated heroin abuse changes the structures and function of the brain so that eventually the brain functions more “normally” on heroin than it does without it. Withdrawal symptoms typically set in within a few hours when heroin is withheld from the body, indicating a physical dependence on the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be excruciating and typically include flu-like symptoms like body aches, cold and hot flashes, diarrhea and vomiting.
Overdose is just one of the many health risks associated with abusing heroin. Collapsed veins, bacterial infections, and liver and kidney disease are other common health problems related to heroin abuse. Studies have also shown that heroin use can lead to the deterioration of white matter in the brain², which irreversibly affects the ability to make decisions, regulate behavior, and respond appropriately to stress. HIV infection is another common health risk among heroin abusers due to needle sharing and risky sexual behaviors.