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Drug rehabilitation centers in the US see hundreds of heroin users each year. But heroin wasn’t always considered a highly-addictive substance. In this post, we provide a comprehensive overview of heroin’s history, effects and withdrawal symptoms, and its treatment options.

History of Heroin

Heroin is derived from opium, which itself is derived from the poppy plant. Medicinal opiates were used widely across the US and Europe in the 19th century to alleviate pain, suppress coughing, and help with sleep. Opium dens also became commonplace at this time, and opium was even promoted as a cure to alcoholism.

By the mid-1800s, morphine addiction was an epidemic in America. In 1874, a German company released a new product, Heroin, for doctors to prescribe as a safe and non-addictive alternative to morphine. It became a popular over-the-counter medicine for a range of ailments.

It was only in the 1920s that heroin became illegal. However, there were already hundreds of thousands of Americans addicted to the drug, and its popularity on the ‘black market’ exploded. Thus heroin addiction as we know it today was born.

Effects of Heroin

Most heroin-users take the drug via intravenous injection. It enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it binds to the opioid receptors.

Its effects are similar to other opiates. There is an initial ‘rush’, followed by feelings of drowsiness or ‘heaviness’. Heroin blocks physical pain, creating a sense of euphoria, warmth, and comfort in the user.

Heroin slows the user’s breathing and heart rate, leading to disorientation and shortness of breath. In some cases, the user may stop breathing altogether, resulting in brain damage, coma, or death.

Heroin users can also display erratic behavior, alternating between hyper-alertness and drowsiness.

Regular heroin use leads to the user developing a certain tolerance – they must continue to take the drug, and often in larger amounts, in order to get a ‘high’.

Side Effects and Withdrawal Symptoms

After coming down from the high, users suffer from excessive sweating (including ‘cold sweats’), tremors, nausea and vomiting, severe pain (especially in the joints, bones, and muscles), diarrhea, fever, muscle cramps, and insomnia.

Users may also suffer from itchy skin while high – constant scabs, sores, bruises, and scratches are often a giveaway that someone is addicted to heroin. Similarly, the injection site will be covered in ‘track marks’ from repetitive ruptures to the skin, which often becomes infected, forming abscesses.

Heroin users will often lose weight; in women, this can lead to amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle).

In the long-term, heroin users develop heart problems, pulmonary diseases, liver disease, arthritis, blood clots, and collapsed veins. They are also at greater risk of contracting bacterial infections, as well as HIV or Hepatitis B and C, from sharing needles with other users.

Getting Help

Thankfully, there are a number of different treatment options for heroin addiction. Research shows that, for most people, a combination of behavioral and pharmacological therapies is the most effective way to overcome this addiction.

There are certain medications that can be used during detox to alleviate the heroin user’s pain and cravings, making it easier to get clean in the first place. These drugs act on the same opioid receptors in the brain but are safer when used with proper medical supervision at a hospital or rehab clinic.

Many inpatient and outpatient rehab programs offer behavioral therapies to help recovering heroin users cope with ‘life after heroin’. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help addicts of all kinds, changing their behaviors linked to drug use, and helping them manage the stresses and pressures of daily life.