Heroin is a powerful, highly addictive drug that is derived from opium. It was first synthesized from morphine in the 1890s and was initially considered to be an effective pain killer and cough suppressant. Its harmful effects were, however, soon recognized and heroin's manufacture and sale is now illegal in most countries because of its widespread abuse and habit forming qualities. The number of heroin addicts in the United States alone is around 2 million and despite the restrictions and crack-down on the manufacturing and use of the drug, illicit heroin trade still thrives in many parts of the world due to the continuing demand for the drug and very high profits involved in its trade. This paper focuses on the effects of heroin and discusses:
Physical effects of heroin: short- and long-term
Psychological effects of heroin: short- and long-term
Sociological effects of heroin: short- and long-term
Observable signs and symptoms of acute intoxication
Physical and psychological addiction
The short-term physical effects of heroin are triggered by the brain's millions of receptors that quickly bind with the morphine as it enters the brain. Although the effects of heroin intake vary to some extent from person to person, the most common short-term physical manifestations are flushing (an increase in warmth of the skin), constricted pupils, a dry mouth and a weighed down feeling in the extremities. Other short-term physical effects may include nausea, dizziness and itching, sleepiness and a decreased level of physical functioning including suppression of pain and spontaneous abortion. ("Heroin Effects: short-term" 2003 -- Narconon website) Heroin intake also results in a marked decrease in respiratory and cardiac functions because of the slowing down of the heart and breathing rates. Some first time users may experience vomiting and severe headaches. Most of these physical effects are the result of heroin action on the brain. For example, all opiates (including heroin) act on the brain stem -- an area that controls automatic body functions such as breathing. The opiate drugs also block pain messages to the brain that are transmitted by the spinal cord from the body. (Ibid.)
The long-term physical effects of heroin include abscesses, arthritis, infection of the heart lining and valves, respiratory problems, as well as clogged or collapsed blood vessels in the lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Constipation and weight loss are other common physical effects of heroin use. Since most long-term heroin users inject the drug through shared and dirty needles, a high proportion of chronic heroin addicts suffer from diseases such as HIV / AIDS, and hepatitis. Side effects from the unknown chemicals and dangerous poisons with which heroin is 'cut,' are another hazard that heroin users have to face. The most insidious long-term physical effect of heroin is that the user is unable to ingest or digest food correctly which results in atrophy of muscles and withering away of the body. ("Heroin Addiction," 2003-Gulf Coast Recovery.)
The most obvious short-term psychological effect of heroin is the intense feeling of pleasurable sensation, or what is described by most drug abusers as a "rush." The intensity of the rush depends on how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the brain receptors. It also depends on the tolerance that a person has developed for the drug and the method by which the drug is consumed. This feeling of euphoria lasts for a short time -- from a few minutes to a few hours -- and is perhaps the primary reason for heroin drug abuse as all drug abusers crave for the pleasurable sensation. The other short-term psychological effect is the clouding of mental function due to heroin's effect on the central nervous system followed by drowsiness. The psychological effect of heroin is surprisingly quick. Some users can no longer view the world the same way they did before the first dose of the drug. Their personality begins to change very quickly. ("Heroin Information," 2003; "Heroin Effect," 2003)
In the longer term, the heroin user becomes totally dependent on the drug until his whole life revolves around the effort to get the next 'fix.' Other long-term psychological effects of heroin include loss of enthusiasm and involvement in everyday affairs, withdrawal from hobbies and sports, reluctance to make new friends, irritability and overreaction to criticism, sudden changes in mood and compulsive lying. A heroin user goes to great lengths to deny that he is a drug abuser. Devious and manipulative behavior aimed at getting money for supporting the drug is also a typical long-term effect of heroin. Distorted perception, hallucinations, and paranoia are the other long-term psychological effects of heroin. (Ibid.)
As we have observed earlier, a heroin abuser's whole life revolves around the effort to get the next 'fix.' In this compulsive quest, a heroin addict becomes oblivious to all his / or her obligations to his family and the society in which he lives. In this way, the sociological effects of heroin are most profound as every addition of a heroin user in a society means a loss of a useful / functioning member.
In the short-term, drug use affects the immediate family of the addict. If he / or she is a bread winner for the family, the family is likely to be affected economically as part of the money is diverted to support the individual's drug habit. If a parent becomes a drug abuser, the children will suffer neglect.
The long-term sociological effect of heroin is more profound. If a large percentage of a society's population becomes heroin abusers the cumulative effect on the society can be devastating especially since most heroin users are in the prime of their productive lives. The places and societies in which heroin drug abuse is widespread also leads to the development of a 'drug culture' in which crimes such as rape, violence, and gang wars abound. In some societies, drug trade becomes such a major economic activity that drug 'lords' begin to control the governments and their policies. (Goode, 1972)
Symptoms of Acute Intoxication
Acute intoxication occurs as a result of heroin overdose. Heroin OD is very common since the heroin sold on the streets is not standardized and may contain varying amounts of the drug. There is also no minimum amount of dose that causes 'acute intoxication' in everyone since tolerance to the drug varies from person to person.
Most of the effects of acute intoxication of heroin are short-term and include:
Muscle spasticity (cramps), slow, labored and shallow breathing, pinpoint pupils, dry mouth, tongue discoloration, cold and clammy skin, bluish fingernails and lips, spasms of the stomach and/or intestinal tract, constipation, weak pulse, low blood pressure, drowsiness, disorientation, coma and delirium. (Sporer (2003); "Heroin Overdose" Narconon Website)
The long-term effect of acute heroin intoxication can be death permanent damage to other vital organs such as the brain, kidneys, heart or lungs.
Because of the extremely fast acting nature of heroin, i.e., it reaches the brain very rapidly and latches on to the brain's morphine receptors almost as soon as it is introduced in the blood stream, many heroin users become addicted from day 1 of heroin use. Addiction can be both physical as well as psychological.
Physical dependence means that the body adapts to the presence of the drug and if the presence of the drug is reduced in the body, withdrawal symptoms occur. In case of heroin, withdrawal symptoms can occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Withdrawal symptoms are quite severe and are one of the reasons why it is particularly difficult for heroin addicts to 'kick' the habit. Withdrawal symptoms of heroin include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, hot and cold flushes, and involuntary leg movements. Major withdrawal…