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What is Heroin?

Heroin is a drug made from morphine, which is a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance taken from the resin of the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Heroin’s color and look depending on how it is made and what else it may be mixed with. It can be white or brown, or a black, sticky substance called “black tar heroin.”

Heroin is part of a class of drugs called opioids. Other opioids include some prescription pain relievers, such as codeine, oxycodone (OxyCotin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin).

Heroin use and overdose deaths have been on the rise over the last decade. This increase is related to the growing number of people misusing prescription opioid pain relievers. (Substance misuse is the use of a substance that causes problems at home, work, or school, or causes health, legal, or relationship problems). Some people who become addicted to those drugs switch to heroin because it produces similar effects but is cheaper and easier to get. Most people who use heroin report that they first misused prescription opioids. However, it is just a small percentage of people who switch from prescription opioids to heroin.

The most common use of heroin is to mix it with water and inject it with a needle. However, it can also be sniffed, smoked, or snorted. People who use heroin sometimes combine it with other drugs, such as alcohol and cocaine, which can be very dangerous and significantly raise the risk of overdose.

The Brain and Body

Heroin is most commonly used as a recreational drug for its feeling of intense pleasure and happiness. After use, heroin enters the body and causes immediate change within a person’s brain and bodily functions. When the drug wears off, people experience a depressed mood and often crave the drug to regain the good feeling.

Heroin and the Teenage Brain

When heroin enters the brain, it attaches to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors. These receptors are located in many areas of the brain and body, especially areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure, as well as part of the brain that regulates breathing.

Regular heroin use changes the functioning of the brain. Damage to thinking, decision-making, and behavior are the short-term mental effects of heroin use. Using heroin repeatedly can result in a decrease in natural dopamine (neurotransmitter that provides the body pleasure) levels leading to:

  • Tolerance. More of the drug is needed to achieve the same “high.”
  • Dependence. The need to continue the use of the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  • Addiction. A brain disease, without proper treatment, can cause terrible consequences to a person’s health and personal lives. Because of the change of how the brain functions after repeated drug use, people that are addicted crave the drug just to feel “normal.”

Heroin and the Teenage Body

Opioid receptors are located in the brain, the brain stem, down the spinal cord, and the lungs and intestines. Thus, using heroin can result in a wide variety of physical problems related to breathing and other basic life functions, some of which may be very serious. Here are some ways heroin affects the body:

  • feeling sick to the stomach and throwing up
  • severe itching
  • clouded thinking
  • a temporary feeling of intense happiness
  • switching back and forth between conscious and semi-conscious
  • painful abscesses (tissue filled with puss)
  • infection of the heart
  • liver and kidney disease
  • lung problems
  • constipation and stomach cramping
  • mental health problems, such as depression

Because heroin can slow and even stop breathing death from a fatal overdose can occur. Although heroin use in youth has decreased throughout the nation, in 2016, 14% of all opioid deaths occurred in youth under the age of 24.

In addition to the effects of the drug itself, heroin bought on the street often contains a mix of substances, including the dangerous opioid called fentanyl. Drug dealers add fentanyl because it is cheap and they can save money. These substances can be toxic and can clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidney, or brain. This can cause permanent damage to those organs.

Sharing drug injection needles and engaging in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex can increase the risk of being exposed to diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.


The number of youth and young adults using heroin is increasing. It has been found that misusing prescription pain medication (opioids) is strongly linked to heroin use.

Heroin is a very addictive drug. In 2016, about 630,000 people in the United States had a heroin use disorder. That means they had serious problems with the drug, including health issues, disabilities, and problems meeting responsibilities at work, school, or home. Of the people with heroin use disorder in 2016, about 2,500 were young adults aged 12 to 25.

Heroin enters the brain quickly, causing a fast, intense high. Using heroin repeatedly can cause people to develop tolerance. Which is when a person needs to take more and more of it to get the safe effect. Eventually, they may need to keep taking the drug just to feel normal.

When someone is addicted to heroin and stops using it, they may experience extremely uncomfortable and painful withdrawal symptoms, which is why it is so hard to stop using. Those symptoms can include:

  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Cold flashes with chills
  • Throwing up
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • A strong craving for the drug

Using too much heroin can slow and even stop breathing, causing an overdose and potentially death. Deaths from heroin overdoses have been increasing over the past 30 years, due to the misuse of prescription opioids and heroin users. People who are showing signs of an overdose (slow breathing, blue skin coloring, vomiting or gurgling noises) need urgent medical help. A drug called Naloxone (Narcan) can be given to reverse the effects of an opioid (including heroin) overdose, and preventing deathโ€“but only if it is given in time.

Fortunately, treatment can help an addicted person stop using and stay off heroin. Medicines can help with cravings that occur after quitting, helping a person take control of their health and lives.

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