ALSO KNOWN AS: Brown, China White, H, Hero, Horse, Junk, Skag, Smack.
Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed-pod of the Asian poppy plant. It is a highly addictive substance and withdrawal symptoms can be extremely painful.
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.
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.
Prescription Opioids and Heroin – an intertwined problem
Prescription opioid pain medicines such as Percocet® and OxyContin® have effects similar to heroin.
Research suggests that misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids. More recent data suggest that heroin is frequently the first opioid people use.
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 suggests that prescription opioid misuse is just 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.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin#ref