Physical and Psychological Effects of Heroin Abuse

Every day, at least 115 people die from an opioid overdose in the United States of America and around 4-6 percent people dependent on opioids switch to heroin, abused as a cheaper substitute to the prescription drugs. It is an illegal opioid prepared from poppy plant and listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). People with dried out prescriptions of painkillers resort to heroin, which is cheaper and easily available. It is smoked, snorted or injected for its euphoric effects.

According to the United Nations, the number of heroin users in the U.S. is the highest in last 20 years. Many drug dealers mix it with fentanyl and other fatal drugs to reduce the cost and increase the potency. Gullible users buy it thinking it’s pure heroin and end up suffering from deadly consequences. Sold in a number of forms, such as solid black chunks, white or brown powder or sticky black substance, heroin is fast in delivering its potent effects. It blocks the brain’s ability to perceive pain by depressing the central nervous system.

As it imitates the brain’s natural process of seeking pleasure, its preliminary experience can lead to tolerance, which slowly transitions to dependence and addiction. With time, more and more quantity of the drug is required to produce the same effects. Eventually, all that users care about is drug acquisition by any means. They isolate themselves from social obligations and personal responsibilities, and prefer to stay alone.

Heroin causes changes in white and gray matter of brain

Recurrent exposure to heroin is not only habit forming; it also starts affecting the white and gray matter of the brain, which in turn, starts affecting the hormonal and neuronal functions of the body. These changes cannot be undone easily. According to the researchers, exposure to heroin might result in the disruption of the brain’s white matter, which connects different regions of the brain with each other and facilitates the transmission of chemical and electrical signals. In the same manner, gray matter located in the regions controlling muscle movements and emotions, hearing, speech, sight, behavior and decision making is also affected by recurrent drug use.

It leads to a disruption in the gray matter volume in the frontal cortex region. This is the area where complicated thinking takes place and information is processed for recollecting and understanding. The disruption in white and gray matter regions of the brain can lead to long-term incongruences in the hormonal and neuronal systems and with repeated intake, the ability to react to stressful situations, make decisions and control behavior decreases.

In addition to short-term physical symptoms, heroin abuse can also lead to long-term health consequences, like increased risk of HIV and other infections due to shared needles, mental health issues like depression and paranoia, reproductive issues like irregular menstrual cycle, and damage to nose tissues due to snorting. Heroin abuse can also lead to troubled relationships, financial problems, legal battles, unemployment and homelessness. Some of the behavioral signs indicating heroin abuse and addiction could be stealing or borrowing money, and hostile or deceptive behavior.

When used in excess and for a longer period, the risk of overdose increases. Some of the overdose effects are depressed heart rate, slowed breathing (condition known as respiratory depression), coma and even death. When the user tries to abruptly stop drug use, it can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms manifested in the form of muscle and bone pain, nausea, agitation, insomnia, and vomiting, drug cravings, cold sweat, diarrhea and fever.

Treatment for drug abuse and mental issues

As heroin withdrawal can be enormously painful, it is sensible to seek treatment under the supervision of a medical professional at a rehab center. Chronic use of any drug requires care from trained and experienced specialists who can diagnose the underlying problem and administer the right recovery plan. The treatment may include detox, medication and behavioral therapies. When a drug user also suffers from a mental illness, it’s called co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. Both the conditions need to be treated simultaneously for complete recovery. Leaving one undiagnosed or untreated can worsen both the problems.

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