Heroin is a street drug derived from the poppy plant. Highly addictive, this substance may be white or tan powder, or it may be a sticky, black tar-like substance. Some people snort the powder while others smoke the drug in a pipe; others dissolve heroin in water and inject the solution. All forms and all methods of ingestion are addictive and come with a slew of health risks.
Tolerance and Addiction
When someone uses heroin regularly over a long period of time, they will inevitably develop a tolerance to the drug. That is, they will need to increase their dose regularly in order to continue experiencing the effects – including the high – that they experienced when they first started using the drug. As the regular dose begins to rise, this physical tolerance can contribute to the development of a heroin addiction. Signified by cravings and a driving need to get and stay high, addicts will often experience extreme withdrawal symptoms when without heroin. These can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bone and muscle pain
- Stomach cramps and diarrhea
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than four million Americans over the age of 12 have used heroin at least once in 2011. Though this adds up to only 1.6 percent of the population, it is believed that about 23 percent of people who try heroin will develop an addiction to it.
Health risks caused by the use of heroin can occur after a single use of the drug, or they can occur over time. Taking too much or combining the use of heroin with other drugs can increase the risk of medical emergencies that may include:
- Heart infection and related cardiac problems
Additionally, depending upon the method of ingestion, other problems may arise as well. For example, people who use needles to inject heroin are at risk of developing abscesses and infections at the injection site. If they share needles, they may also be at risk for contracting transmittable diseases like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.
Total Risk Reduction = Abstinence
The only way to guarantee that someone will avoid the health risks associated with heroin use is to help them avoid heroin use altogether. When living with an active heroin addiction, however, it is important to note that simply quitting cold turkey on your own is not advised. Professional treatment can help you through the withdrawal symptoms and help you avoid relapse.
Relapsing after a period of abstinence can lead to overdose, and the rate of overdoses in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , the rate of heroin overdoses in the US quadrupled between the year 2000 and 2013.
Further Reading About Health Risks of Heroin Abuse
Read our general and most popular articles
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.