The great irony of heroin is that it was originally considered a cure-all, medical miracle good for just about every ailment. It wasn't until the beginning of the 1900s that doctors realized the hidden danger of heroin use: addiction. Heroin is a depressant, one of a family of chemicals called opiates which are made from the Somniferum poppy. Heroin and other opiates mimic the effects of the brain's natural chemicals, acting to reduce pain and trigger the brain's "pleasure centers."
So what's so bad about the brain's "pleasure center"?
In short, nothing. Pleasure is a natural sensation that your body uses to encourage you to do things that are good for it. We feel pleasure when we accomplish our goals, eat foods that we like and even when we learn new things. In fact, we do many things in life simply because we find them pleasant. In order to be happy, we need pleasant experiences. Heroin takes advantage of our need for pleasant experiences. When used, it creates a huge "rush" of artificial pleasant sensations. The rush is so intense that a user begins to need and crave it, in the same way that we crave pleasant experiences. This craving can become an addiction.
But I thought you said that heroin was a depressant!
It is. While heroin can stimulate the brain's pleasure centers, it has opposite effects on many of the body's other systems. Heroin slows down the user's breathing rate. The muscles relax until the arms and legs feel heavy and the eyelids droop. The muscles in the intestines go numb, leading to chronic constipation. The heart beats slower and more weakly. The user may feel flushed, intensely itchy and very sleepy.
Heroin also changes the body's hormone concentrations. The result: delayed periods in women and a lack of sexual desire in both sexes. In an overdose, the heroin user's breathing may slow so much that the user dies, or the heart can begin beating so weakly that blood isn't circulated and the lungs fill with fluid.
But I'm not going to overdose!
That's nice. The problem is that there are many different varieties and concentrations of heroin available on the street. Street heroin can range from 3-99% pure. Since the concentration varies so much, the user has no idea what he or she is taking and it's very easy to overdose. Of course, if the street drug is only partially heroin; other things are added to make up the difference. Sometimes these additives are relatively harmless -- like powdered milk and talc -- and at other times, the additives that the drug is "cut" with may be dangerous poisons that have their own risks.
Snorting, Shooting, Smoking and More
Heroin can be smoked, injected, snorted into the nose or even taken orally (by mouth). What's important to remember is that NO METHOD IS "SAFE." Injecting the drug can be a big health risk in the era of AIDS, and anyone who shares a needle can easily be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There are also diseases like hepatitis (a liver disease), which can be just as lethal and are even more infectious.
In general, injecting any drug can mean infection, collapse of the veins and circulatory problems. Some of the things that heroin is "cut" with may not dissolve as well as the drug does, leaving dangerous blockages in the blood vessels. Injection also leaves ugly (and noticeable) scarring on the veins and skin.
Snorting heroin, which has become more popular recently because of the availability of "purer" heroin, is no safer. Snorting heroin irritates the nose, which can lead to uncontrollable nosebleeds. Given time, snorting can even eat away parts of the nostrils.
Smoking heroin, or inhaling the smoke from heating heroin, can do severe damage to the lungs and can result in respiratory problems.
What heroin does to the body in a single dose is bad enough, but the real problem with all of the opiate drugs is addiction. The user will keep wanting the rush that the drug gives and the need will become physical. The body becomes dependent on the drug. Unfortunately, the body's reaction to the drug is very individual, and no one can predict when a particular person will become addicted. The human body is great at adapting to new things, so after a few weeks of consistent heroin use, the body will have adjusted. The result: larger and larger doses of the drug are required to get the same rush. This is called developing a tolerance.
When the user finally does try to break free of the drug, the body's addiction can turn into withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include severe bone and muscle pain, chills, diarrhea or constipation and even hallucinations. Withdrawal is agonizing and, after long term use, withdrawal can start only a few hours after the last dose was taken.
Most users who want to stop using heroin have to go through a detoxification program under the care of a doctor. Abrupt withdrawal can even be fatal. Often, a weaker opiate is used to wean the user off of the drug.
But it's not just heroin...
Heroin is probably the best known of the opiate drugs, but there are other drugs that have the same effects and pitfalls. Opiate drugs can be either entirely natural (derived straight from the opium poppy) or they can be synthetic (totally man-made, or opioids). Each of these drugs varies in strength from the others, and many of them are used for legitimate medical purposes.
If prescribed by a doctor, these drugs can be used successfully to alleviate pain without getting the patient addicted. However, overused or taken without a prescription, other opiates and opioids can be just as addictive as heroin.
Some examples of the various opiate and opioid drugs:
Opium: The unrefined liquids from the Somniferum poppy.
Morphine: A common pain reliever used for severe or chronic pain. A natural constituent of the poppy's fluid.
Codeine: A weaker opiate than morphine, extracted from the poppy's fluid. Used to treat minor pain (often with Tylenol, as in Tylenol #3 or Tylenol #4) or coughs (Robitussin AC).
Other synthetic and semi-synthetic opiates and opioids used for medical purposes include: Dilaudid, Percodan, Methadone, Fentanyl, Demerol, Talwin, and Darvon.