Horrors of Heroin Addiction

Horrors of Heroin Addiction

The U.S. government signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law on December 13, 2016. The Act aims to “expedite the discovery, development and delivery of new treatment and cures,” which includes $1 billion over 2 years time to opioid abuse prevention and treatment.  Below is an interview with Kim Bassett, an RN and healthcare executive with more than 25 years experience. Kim speaks candidly about heroin and the dangers of its use.

Q. What is Heroin?

Heroin is processed from morphine, an opioid, and can be smoked, snorted or injected into veins or muscles. The drug binds to and activates specific receptors in the brain causing you to become addicted to it both physically and psychologically. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 12, had tried heroin at least one time, with 23 percent of those individuals becoming dependent on the substance as a result. 

Q. Why is heroin so dangerous?

As a nurse, I’ve seen a lot of people with addictions. They come in all shapes and sizes and all walks of life. Addiction knows no bounds. For starters, no one really knows what is in heroin aside from the primary opioid. Ingredients can vary wildly from batch to batch. Some are more “pure” than others, which can be noted in the color of the powder -- the whiter, typically the more pure the drug is, due to fewer additives. Some heroin even has strychnine, a toxic substance used as a pesticide. Beyond the unknown ingredients, heroin interferes with the area of the brain that controls auto-functioning such as breathing and reaction time. When combined with another consciousness altering substances such as alcohol, the effects can be deadly that much more quickly.

Q. What draws people to use heroin?

People use Heroin for any number of reasons, sometimes pain relief, other times for the fun of the high. Sometimes users first begin consuming prescription medications (gateway drugs) such as oxycontin or oxycodone, which has a lot of properties similar to what is in heroin. Heroin is known to cause an initial rush of euphoria, making the user feel happy, even euphoric. As the drug leaves the system, this is replaced by anxiety, restlessness and even depression. Each time a person uses heroin, more of the drug must be used to achieve the same “high.”

Q. What happens to your body when you take heroin?

Immediate reactions include clouded mental functioning and slowed cardiac and respiratory functioning, which can lead to asphyxiation and/or heart attack. Long-term effects include soft tissue infections, liver kidney disease, AIDS, Hepatitis and other blood-borne illnesses, permanent damage to soft nasal tissue, chronic insomnia and sexual dysfunction to name only a few. 

Q. How does Heroin affect the brain?

Heroin addiction is one of the hardest addictions to beat. Relapse is common, physicians tell us it actually alters your brain. Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted back to morphine, a powerful drug used primarily to block pain. The morphine then binds to existing opioid receptors in the brain, which causes the feeling of pain relief and euphoria at 10x the normal dopamine levels. By exposing your body to increased levels of dopamine, your body adjusts and builds a tolerance. The result is a lower pain thresholds and your sensitivity to pain is lowered as well. Some studies have shown that these changes can occur after a single dose of heroin, resulting in the user “needing” more and more heroin just to feel “normal.”

Q. How to treat heroin addiction?

To begin tackling heroin addiction, both the physical and psychological must be addressed. Thankfully, a wide range of behavioral modification methods exist to address primarily the psychological aspect of heroin addiction including traditional detox programs, counseling, behavioral therapy, relapse prevention, coping and skills training, and support group participation. In conjunction with these programs, specific medications can be used to help wean the patient’s dependence.

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