10 May Heroin: A Modern American Health Crisis
When most people hear the word heroin, the vision that comes to mind looks something like this: homeless people living under a bridge or strewn about in an abandoned house, unresponsive and plotting their next fix by any means. And while in some cases that depiction is accurate, the span of heroin’s grip in the US goes so much further than that. As the opiate epidemic has blasted across the country, people of all demographics are seeking treatment for heroin abuse, from professional athletes to business executives, high school teenagers, suburban mothers, and even police officers. In the wake of the prescription opiate epidemic that began in the early 2000’s, we have seen an explosive rise in the number of heroin abusers, shifting a substance that was once reserved for the most extreme drug addicts into a silent killer of the masses.
What Is Heroin?
First of all, a little bit about heroin. Originally synthesized for medicinal purposes in 1874, heroin was introduced to the market as a “safer” alternative to morphine, which was commonly used for cough suppression and the treatment of numerous other ailments. However, despite it’s miraculous health claims, including the absence of addictive tendencies, the United States Government banned the production of heroin in 1924. By this point, it is estimated that approximately 200,000 individuals had already become addicted to the drug. Unfortunately, ceasing the legal manufacturing of heroin did not stop it’s availability on home turf, as crime syndicates seized the opportunity to corner the market, bringing with them all of the violence and turmoil that comes with illegal drug trafficking. Widespread abuse remained a problem for close to 20 years, until increased security at the border drastically disrupted the volume of heroin coming into the states, lowering the number of heroin addicted users by close to 80%.
After close to 60 years with relatively low levels of fluctuation in terms of addicted users, the new millennium brought with it an epidemic of unprecedented magnitude, spawned once again at the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. Heroin is a narcotic synthesized from morphine, which like all non-synthetic opioids, is derived from the poppy plant. In the late 1990’s, when OxyContin was released to the US market as a slow-acting narcotic that could be prescribed for all sorts of common pains, an explosive wave of opiate abuse emerged, ultimately bringing back heroin in a way that had never been seen in history. Today, heroin overdose has become a prevalent cause of death for people under 50.
How to Tell if Someone is Using Heroin
So, how can you tell if someone you love is struggling with an addiction to heroin? There are many tell-tale signs that someone might be using heroin. Things to look for can depend based on how the individual is taking the drug. Heroin comes in two forms—a brownish-white powdery substance, usually more prevalent on the east coast, and a black gooey “tar” which is very common in western states—it can be snorted, smoked, or injected intravenously. All of these methods have similar effects as far as the high is concerned, but can be spotted in different ways. Those who smoke heroin generally do so using small pieces of aluminum foil which can be identified by the long black streaks on one side and charred residue from the flame on the other. Intravenous users, on the other hand, can be spotted by the “track marks”, or scabs and scars left on the injection site with chronic use, usually in the crux of the arm.
The symptoms of heroin abuse can be quite visible, especially depending on the tolerance of the individual who is using it. Because it is a central nervous system depressant, the drug has sedating effects which can ultimately overpower the involuntary respiratory systems and lead to overdose. Someone under the influence of heroin or other opiate narcotics will generally “nod off”, where they appear to fall in and out of a conscious state. With higher doses, users can also become incoherent or out of touch with reality. Also, because of the histamine reaction triggered by opiates, individuals can become very itchy. There are also a number of behavioral indications of use such as social withdrawal, shortened temper, change in peer group, or loss of interest in once pleasurable activities.
Given the neurological effects of heroin on the brain, physical addiction can develop incredibly quickly after only a short period of use. Heroin works primarily in the nucleus accumbens with a very strong effect on the dopamine systems, which serves to reinforce certain behaviors via pleasurable feelings. As the body develops a tolerance to the effects of the drug at a particular does, it requires more and more over time to achieve the same effect. Unfortunately, as tolerance increases, so does the potential for withdrawal. The fear of getting “sick” will often keep those who are physically addicted in active use for years or until the consequences are dire.
And while it can be very difficult to spot the symptoms of an active heroin user, particularly one who has developed a tolerance, the severe withdrawal symptoms can be very easy to see. Because of the immense physical component of opiate addictions, withdrawals can cause extreme sickness which will often deter those looking to cease their opiate use. Common signs of withdrawal include nausea and vomiting, agitation, depression, anxiety, restless limbs, excessive perspiration, body temperature fluctuations, and an overwhelming urge to use the drug again.
So many times, those who end up addicted to heroin find themselves there without any previous history of drug abuse. In the wake of the gross overprescribing of pain killing narcotics, over a million people in the US report having used heroin, with nearly 80% of those reporting that they made the transition once the prescription habit became too hard to maintain financially. With so much shame and stigma wrapped around drug addiction, many fail to seek help when it is needed most. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin, please reach out for help now.