Drug Facts: Heroin

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

What Is It?
Heroin is an opiate, a kind of drug that’s culled from the seed of a poppy plant. Other opiates, like morphine, are used as powerful medications to relieve the intense pain of some illnesses, like cancer.

Depending on how the drug is taken, heroin can enter the brain very rapidly, leading to an intense rush. Within minutes—even seconds—heroin travels through the bloodstream to the brain. There, it latches on to opiate receptors located on neurons (see diagram). These cells help the body relieve pain, but can be overstimulated by drugs, such as heroin.

“Heroin floods the receptors,” NIDA’s Dr. Cathrine Sasek says. “Eventually, the receptors become used to this overstimulation and need more heroin just to work normally.”

If an addicted person stops using the drug, withdrawal symptoms result—such as fevers, sweating, shaking, and chills. This is because of changes that have happened in the brain and body in response to repeated exposure to heroin. Without treatment, the withdrawal symptoms will subside after a week or so. But the cravings can remain for years.


Three Deadly Methods
Heroin users take the drug in three different ways: They may inject it directly into their veins or muscles with syringes; they may snort lines of it in powdered form; or they may smoke it in rolled, marijuana-like joints.

Most users inject heroin, believing it leads to a more intense high. But smoking and snorting have become popular among young people. That’s because many mistakenly believe that heroin is only addicting when it is injected.

“That is a total myth,” says Dr. Sasek. “Any way you take heroin is going to hook you. That’s just a fact.”

The more heroin you take, the more you need. Typically, an addicted individual uses it four times a day. Since the drug may be cut with anything from powdered milk to rat poison, users don’t know how much they’re really taking. That makes it easy to overdose. Too much of the drug will slow your respiratory system—until you stop breathing and die. 

Added Risk: Deadly Infections
Addiction and overdose aren’t the only dangers of heroin. It can also put you at risk of being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

HIV is spread through bodily fluids, like blood. Heroin users who share needles can pass the virus to each other. They can also spread other blood-based diseases like hepatitis C and tuberculosis.

Even heroin users who don’t inject can become infected with HIV. The overpowering addiction makes them take crazy risks, like having unsafe sex. “When your whole life revolves around getting drugs, you may do anything for them,” says Dr. Sasek. “If that means sharing needles or trading sex for drugs, then that’s what many will do.” For more information on heroin, check out NIDA’s pages on heroin: www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/heroin.


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