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Heroin is a highly addictive substance and withdrawal symptoms can be extremely painful.

It is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed-pod of the Asian poppy plant.

It’s important to know that illegal heroin found on the streets increasingly contains illegal fentanyl, a more powerful synthetic opioid, and carries a great risk of overdose.

ALSO KNOWN AS: Brown, China White, H, Hero, Horse, Junk, Skag, Smack.

What does heroin look like & how is it used?

In its pure form, heroin is a fine white, bitter tasting powder.

Illegal heroin sold on the streets is usually mixed with powders that look similar, such as starch or sugar, and can vary in purity, colour and consistency. It can look like a white powder, a dark sticky gum or a brown grainy substance. Heroin can be injected, inhaled in powder form, or smoked – each method of use acts quickly on the brain and can lead to addiction. Those who snort or smoke heroin face the same high risk of overdose and death as intravenous users.

Prescription Opioids and Heroin – an intertwined problem

Prescription opioid pain medicines have effects that are similar to heroin. Research suggests that the problematic use of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who used prescription opioids switched to heroin and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first used prescription opioids.

In a study of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder, approximately one-third reported heroin as the first opioid they used regularly to get high. This might suggest that the problematic use of prescription opioids can be one factor leading to heroin use.1

Signs & symptoms of heroin use

The short-term effects of heroin use appear soon after a single dose and disappear in a few hours.

Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

Upon initial use, people who use this drug feel a surge of euphoria (“rush”) and a sense of wellbeing and pleasure, accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, and a dry mouth. Other short term effects can include:

  • heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe itching

Following this initial euphoria, the user goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state, this period of calm can last up to about an hour. Mental functioning becomes clouded due to the depression of the central nervous system. Other short-term effects may last for about 3 to 5 hours.

The strong feelings associated with heroin can leave a user wanting more, which quickly leads to tolerance and addiction.

  1.  National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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