How Heroin Affects the Body and Brain

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Heroin tops the list of highly addictive illegal drugs worldwide,  and the costs of its use both to individuals and the societies they live in can be enormous.  Causing a quick rush and fast dependence, this potent morphine derivative affects the body and brain in many ways large and small.  The effects of heroin can include an immediate rush, long term brain changes – or death.

What Is Heroin?

There is no legal or prescription form of heroin. It’s a concentrated street drug made from morphine, a natural narcotic made from the seed pods of certain kinds of poppy plants.  Morphine itself is a powerful pain killer, and some of those effects are the reason for heroin’s addictive nature – and its popularity.

Heroin comes in a variety of forms, from a pure white powder to a dark tarry substance full of impurities that’s cheaper and easier to get.  Though the stereotypical image of a heroin user involves “cooking” the drug in a spoon over an open burner or candle before injecting it, heroin can also be smoked or snorted.

However it’s consumed, though, heroin has an immediate effect on several parts of the brain, and if used long enough, it can cause permanent changes in the brain’s neural pathways.

Getting the Rush – And Its Risks

Heroin Affects

A heroin addict will begin to neglect basic self-care.

The immediate short term effect of heroin use is what’s called the “rush” – a surge of pleasant feelings that come from the drug’s impact on the brain’s opioid receptors.  These receptors affect the central nervous system and the pathways of pleasure and reward, so that users crave more and more of the drug, regardless of its negative effects.

Right after taking heroin, users typically  experience a warm, flushing feeling in the skin, along with drowsiness and a heaviness in the limbs.  Though the rush leaves users wanting more, it’s often accompanied by nausea, dry mouth, and other sensations including itching.

Afterward, users are often sleepy for hours. The heart rate and breathing slow, and this can lead to coma, brain damage or death as the brain remains deprived of blood and oxygen for too long.

Long Term Effects Can Be Permanent

Heroin is extremely addictive, and users can easily develop a tolerance for the drug that leads them to use higher doses, or use more often, to get the same effect.

As the brain becomes dependent on heroin, its physical structure actually changes, creating new pathways related to the action of the drug.  That creates long term imbalances that can be difficult to reverse.

Long term heroin use also leads to cognitive problems. Heavy users spend much of their time in the drowsy, forgetful state after using, so they may neglect basic self care, forget to eat or bathe, or neglect important financial issues.   They may also use alcohol or other drugs along with heroin, which raises the risk of a potentially fatal overdose.

4 Myths about Heroin Addiction That Every Addict Should Know

Quitting Heroin: Withdrawal and Beyond

Because heroin has such a profound effect on the brain and body, stopping it abruptly – going “cold turkey” – can be dangerous.  Within 24 to 48 hours of quitting the drug, withdrawal symptoms set in. These can include restlessness, flu-like aches, pains and nausea, headache, diarrhea and sweating, and the discomfort can be severe.

These acute physical withdrawal symptoms typically subside within a week or so, but the cravings and habits that go along with addiction can continue and cause users to relapse.

While people are recovering from heroin addiction, maintenance drugs like methadone can be used to ease those symptoms and help users get the most benefit from  counseling or rehab programs.

Because heroin use often goes along with other kinds of substance abuse, helping people recover from heroin addiction may involve treating those other addictions too.  Both the short and long term effects of heroin use can change lives – or end them.  If you or someone you know would like help dealing with heroin addiction, help is only a phone call away.  Contact us at 800-584-3274 to learn more about solutions that are right for you.


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