Currently, the United States is in an opioid epidemic. This is primarily because doctors have been overprescribing patients prescription opioids to help them manage their pain. It also doesn’t help that opioids are highly addictive. While many people end up abusing prescription opioids, others choose to abuse the illegal opioid known as heroin. Many of the people that abuse heroin and/or prescription opioids end up developing an opioid addiction. Once that happens, they must attend detox followed by rehab to get sober again. To understand why people abuse and develop an addiction towards the illegal opioid that’s known as heroin, in particular, one must understand some heroin facts. One should also understand what does heroin look like, and what are street names for heroin.
Jump to Section
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid drug from morphine. Morphine is a natural substance that comes from the seedpods taken from the opium poppy flower grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. It is the fastest-acting, and one of the most abused opiates.
A chemist at The Bayer Company of Germany in 1895 created heroin and introduced the substance for medical use in 1898. At the time, the chemist was trying to create a less addictive substitute for morphine.
He gave the new drug the name “heroin” for its hoped-for heroic qualities. Unfortunately, the chemist discovered later that heroin is actually two to three times more potent than morphine and absorbs into the brain more rapidly. This makes heroin extremely easy to develop an addiction towards.
Street Names for Heroin include:
- Brown sugar
- White horse
- China white
- Mexican black tar
What Does Heroin Look Like?
What does heroin look like, you ask? Well, the appearance of heroin can vary depending on the color and type of heroin it is in. Below are some of the different answers to the question, what does heroin look like.
In its purest form, what does heroin look like? A fine white powder. But it is usually “cut,” or mixed with other substances which makes it hard to identify. This mixing of substances also makes heroin change to colors such as rose gray, brown, or black. Additives are used to dilute heroin to give the dealer more product and therefore more profit.
Heroin is often cut with:
- powdered milk,
- painkillers, or
What does heroin look like when it’s brown? Brown heroin isn’t as pure or strong as white heroin because it hasn’t been refined as much. Brown heroin comes from the first stage of purification of the drug. This means that brown heroin is easier to produce and cheaper than white heroin.
What does heroin look like when it’s from Asia? Southeast Asian heroin is usually white, powdered, and easy to dissolve. Southwest Asian heroin is a brown coarse powder that doesn’t dissolve well. The color can vary though depending on the substances it’s cut with before it’s sold on the streets.
Black Tar Heroin
What does heroin look like when it’s a black tar-like substance? Black tar heroin is dark brown or black and has a sticky tar-like feel because of the cheap way it’s processed, which is different than the powder form. Once again, the color of heroin can vary depending on the additives.
You can melt, inject, or smoke black tar heroin. This type of heroin has a low percentage of pure heroin, but it is faster and easier to produce. This, in turn, makes black tar heroin cheaper than other forms of heroin.
A Few Words About Cutting Heroin
You can cut street heroin “cut” with strychnine or other poisons. These additives don’t completely dissolve so when they are injected into the body, they can clog the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, kidneys, or brain. This can lead to infection or the destruction of vital body organs.
Increasingly, heroin mixed with fentanyl increases the potency and the possibility of overdose. The person buying heroin on the street never knows the actual strength of the drug until he or she uses it.
How Is Heroin Used?
Heroin can be injected into the veins, smoked, sniffed, or snorted. High-purity heroin is usually snorted or smoked because it is difficult to dissolve. Heroin can be smoked in a pipe, mixed with a marijuana joint, or a regular cigarette. The smoke can also be inhaled through a straw or known as “chasing the dragon.”
The most popular way to use heroin is to inject it because the effects are felt the quickest that way. When it is mainlined, the effects of heroin can be felt within seconds. Studies suggest that injection is the method used by about half of people who use heroin. When heroin is smoked, the peak effects are usually felt in 10 to 15 minutes.
What Are Some Signs of Heroin Use?
Early on, people may not always be able to detect when others are using heroin. This is particularly true if people are going to great lengths to hide their heroin use. The more people use heroin though, the harder it is to hide.
Signs of heroin use can include:
- Slurred speech
- Problems with memory
- Needle marks (if injecting heroin)
- Sores or runny nose (is snorting)
- Lack of personal hygiene (change in appearance)
- Aggressive or secretive behavior
- Money problems
- School or work problems
- Dangerously risky behaviors
Who Is Most At Risk for Developing a Heroin Use Disorder?
- A personal or family history of substance addictions
- Heavy use of tobacco
- A history of severe depression or anxiety
- Frequent contact with high-risk surroundings and people
- History of risky behavior
If you or your loved one shows one or many of the risk factors above, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a heroin use disorder will happen or has happened. Addiction has many facets. Thus, there are genetic, psychological, and environmental factors that can impact whether or not a person that abuses heroin develops an addiction to the substance.
How Does Heroin Affect You?
People who develop heroin addictions describe the high that the drug causes as a feeling of “being covered in a warm blanket, where worries are gone” (Bhandari, 2018). Injecting heroin is the most popular way to used it because it’s the quickest way to feel the high. Sadly, it’s also the most dangerous way to use it because the risk of overdose is higher as well as the danger of developing an infection from using a dirty needle.
Regardless of the method by which heroin gets into a person’s body, the substance will reach the brain immediately. After using heroin only one or two times, it may be difficult to keep from using it again. In fact, most users are aware of the risks involved but are still unable to stop using. Why? Because heroin addiction is extremely powerful and usually requires professional medical treatment to successfully treat and manage the addiction.
How Heroin Affects Your Brain
If you want to know some biological heroin facts, you should learn that heroin attaches to and activates specific receptors in the brain called mu-opioid receptors (MORs). Our bodies have naturally occurring chemicals called neurotransmitters, or “chemical messengers” that bind to these receptors throughout the brain and body.
Once the heroin binds to the mu-opioid receptors in the brain, the substance will do the following things:
- Regulate pain
- Release hormones, and
- Feelings of well-being.
MORs stimulate the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This causes reinforcement of drug-taking behaviors. Your brain is wired to increase the chances that you will repeat pleasant actions. Dopamine is central to this.
When you activate the reward circuit by a healthy pleasurable experience, a rush of dopamine signals to your brain that something needs to be remembered. Thus dopamine changes your neural connections. This makes it t easier to repeat the pleasurable activity over and over without thinking about it.
This is how habits are formed. Large surges of dopamine caused by heroin teach the brain to choose drugs at the expense of other healthier activities.
Short-Term Effects and Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use
If you want to learn more about what does heroin look like and other heroin facts, you should know that heroin is a potent drug that changes the chemicals in the brain. Heart rate, sleeping, and breathing are also affected. People who use heroin say there is a surge of pleasure commonly called a “rush.”
Short-term effects of heroin use include:
- Dry mouth
- Warm flushing of the skin
- Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Cloudy mental functioning
- Going “on the nod.” (a back and forth state of being conscious and semiconscious)
Long-Term effects of heroin use include:
- Collapsed veins
- Heart infections
- Kidney and liver disease
- Mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
- Sexual dysfunction for men
- Irregular menstrual cycles for women
Over time, the use of heroin changes the physical structure and normal functions of the brain. For example, it creates unevenness in neuron and hormone systems that are hard to reverse.
Research has even shown deterioration of the brain’s white matter. In some cases, the heroin addict’s mind actually loses the ability to give off euphoric effects on its own. Heroin is then used only as a way to avoid or relieve the symptoms of withdrawal.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
When an individual first stops using heroin, that person will experience withdrawal symptoms that may be quite severe. During this detoxification phase, medications can be used to ease cravings and other painful symptoms that cause people to relapse.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme muscle and bone pain
- Sleep disturbances
A heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough heroin to cause a life-threatening reaction or death. Heroin overdoses doubled between 2010 and 2012. Statistics from 2018 show that every day, 128 people in the U. S. die after overdosing on opioids.
When a person overdoses, his or her breathing slows or stops, cutting down the amount of oxygen that gets to their brain. If the victim doesn’t die, this experience can have short- and long-term effects on the nervous system including permanent brain damage.
Is There Treatment for Heroin Addiction?
Yes, there is heroin addiction treatment. Although there is no single perfect cure for heroin addiction, there are many effective treatments that can help a person get into long-term successful recovery.
The type of heroin treatment use depends on:
- The individual addicted
- The addictive substance
- Any co-occurring medical or mental conditions
The method of self-detox known as “cold-turkey” doesn’t include medical support and can lead to death in some cases. Another serious complication of quitting substances such as heroin cold turkey is the relapse factor. During detox, the body loses its tolerance for heroin, and if it is reintroduced at the previous level of use, there is a higher risk of overdose.
After detox, individuals enter addiction treatment. Two important components of any recovery program are behavioral (therapy) and pharmacological (medication). Used together, these therapies help build some amount of normalcy to behavior and brain function. Scientific research has shown that combining both interventions is the most effective method when used under the supervision of medical professionals.
The medications used to treat heroin addiction work through the same brain receptors as the drug. They are just safer and not likely to cause addictive behaviors when used properly under medical supervision.
Medications are chosen based on the patient’s needs and other factors. There are three types of medications:
- Agonists–Agonists such as methadone activate the opioid receptors in the brain. They are long-acting opioid agonists that replace the shorter-acting opioids that people are addicted to. Agonists help with withdrawal symptoms and eliminate cravings for heroin without causing people to get high.
- Partial agonists–These activate the opioid receptors but cause a limited response. Buprenorphine is a partial agonist that eases drug cravings without the side effects of an opioid agonist.
- Antagonists–Antagonists block the opioid receptors and prevent the reward effect of opioids. Naltrexone is an example of an opioid agonist.
There are many effective behavioral therapy methods available to help treat heroin addiction. They can be used in both residential and outpatient programs. The most frequently used behavioral therapies are:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)– CBT is designed to adjust the patient’s behavior and expectations as they relate to drug use. It is a goal-oriented, short-term therapy that helps people learn new skills in coping with life’s stressors.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)–DBT is a cognitive behavioral therapy that is more focused on managing negative emotions.
- Contingency Management (CM)–CM uses a voucher system in which patients earn points for clean drug tests, therapy attendance, etc. Points can be exchanged for things that encourage healthy living.
- Residential Treatment–While heroin addiction treatment patients are attending counseling and therapy sessions, they may be living in a residential facility with full-time supervision and support.
- Outpatient Programs–There are several levels of outpatient treatment, each requiring a different time commitment. Outpatient patients attend therapy at the treatment facility and are able to go home at the end of the day.
Recovery From Heroin Use Disorder is Closer Than You Think
At Florida Center for Recovery we know that although heroin use is a serious addiction, it doesn’t have to be permanent or even long-term. No one starts out to be an addict. Don’t let yourself hit rock bottom before receiving help.
Here at Florida Center for Recovery, we can offer you a number of effective therapies and treatment programs. That way, we can design individualized addiction treatment programs. Don’t wait and don’t attempt this on your own. Contact us now and get your life back on track safely.
Dr. Balta is the Medical Director at FCR for more than 10 years. Dr. Balta is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, Certified Psychoanalyst. As well, as having Psychiatric Training at The Albert Einstein School of Medicine Psychiatric Residency Program In New York City and Psychoanalytic Training at The William Alanson White Institute in New York City. While working in New York City, gained funding Grants for the treatment of Substance Abuse Disorders from SAMHSA , HRSA and the City of New York.