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What Is the Definition of Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug that is synthesized from morphine<. It has similar properties to prescription drugs such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, but it is illegal. It is sold in various forms to be snorted, smoked, or injected by users for the intense feelings of euphoria.

Regular use of heroin can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

What Is Heroin?

A syringe and drugs on a tableThe raw materials used to manufacture heroin come from opium poppy plants cultivated primarily in Southern Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. When the plant is harvested, morphine, an opiate substance naturally present in the seed pod, is extracted. Morphine can then be further processed into heroin.1,2

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists heroin as a Schedule I drug, meaning that the drug is not legal, has no valid medical use, and has a high potential for abuse and addiction.1

Heroin is known by several street names, including Horse, Smack, Devil Dust, Chiva, Negra, Big H, and Thunder.1

Various Forms and Use

Syringe sitting on surfaceHeroin is frequently encountered in powder form, which is often brown or white in color. In certain regions, you might also find it in the form of a sticky, gummy substance known as black tar.1

Heroin’s purity varies tremendously. Often, dealers “cut” heroin with other substances, such as sugar, powdered milk, quinine, or starch to increase its volume and sell more of it.1,3

Since heroin is a street drug, users can’t be certain about its purity or strength. Recently, dealers have been cutting it with the opioid drug fentanyl. This drug is 50 times more potent than heroin, and people who use fentanyl-laced heroin place themselves at higher risk for fatal overdose than heroin alone.4

Heroin users often inject the drug. But it can also be snorted or smoked, particularly if it is very pure.3 New users of heroin tend to view smoking and snorting as more socially acceptable, as injection carries a good deal of stigma.3

Common Injection Sites for Heroin

  • Common injection sites for intravenous (IV) heroin use are the arms, hands, legs, feet, groin, and neck.
  • Injection sites for intramuscular injection (“muscle-popping”) are the buttocks, thighs, and upper arms.
  • Popular injection sites for subcutaneous injection (“skin-popping”) are the upper and lower arms and legs.6

How It Affects Your Body

Heroin user about to useHeroin belongs to the opioid classification of drugs. Like other opioids, which include morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, heroin binds to opioid receptors. Through its activation of these receptors, heroin can cause a number of effects such as diminished pain perception, heightened pleasure, changes in heart rate, and slowed breathing.1,2

Heroin rapidly enters the brain and produces a euphoric rush, or high, followed by a period of alternating sleep and wakefulness.1

Heroin can produce additional effects as well, such as:1

  • Flushed skin.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Constricted pupils.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Heavy feelings in arms and legs.
  • Shallow, slowed breathing. 

Dependence Developing into Addiction

Heroin addict experiencing withdrawalHeroin is a highly addictive drug, in part because it enters the brain so quickly. Users feel a sensation of euphoria, which many enjoy and want to experience again.

Regular heroin use can quickly lead to tolerance, in which the person has to continue to use more and more of the drug to feel the same effects they felt before.2 As tolerance increases, a person can become physically dependent on heroin as they gradually increase their dose. When a significant level of physical dependence has developed, people are likely to not feel or function normally without heroin.5

When these users try to reduce the amount of heroin they are using, they might experience withdrawal symptoms, which can be very unpleasant and uncomfortable and can include:2

  • Muscle and bone pain.
  • Restlessness.
  • Sleep difficulties.
  • Diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Goose bumps.
  • Cravings.

Typically, though not always, the development of physical dependence accompanies the onset of an addiction. When a person is addicted, their heroin use continues despite consequences to their mental and physical health, as well a failure to meet responsibilities at home, school, or at work.2 Heroin addiction can be devastating, but it is treatable.

Maybe you have tried to stop using heroin, but you’re scared. Or you feel you are unable to resist the cravings for heroin. Maybe you are afraid for a loved one who has heroin addiction. Regardless of how confused or hopeless you may feel, know that help is available, and full recovery from heroin addiction is possible.

Sources

  1. U.S. Department of Justice. Drug Enforcement Administration (2017). Drugs of abuse.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2018). Heroin.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2018). Heroin: What is heroin and how is it used?
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2016). Fentanyl related overdoses prompt alert from CDC.
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2007). The neurobiology of drug addiction: Definition of dependence.
  6. Harm Reduction Coalition. (2007). Getting Off Right: A Safety Manual for Injection Drug Users.

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