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Heroin is the general name for a recreational drug belonging to the Opioid group of psychoactive drugs. It is sourced from morphine, a natural substance found within the seed pods of the opium poppy.

Heroin usually appears as either a white or brown powder or as something referred to as ‘black tar’, due to its sticky black appearance.

In its different forms, it can be inhaled, snorted or smoked, but the most common way is via injection, and it is extremely addictive, with some users becoming hooked very early on.

The drug enters the brain quickly, bringing a rapid sense of euphoria. Heroin addiction carries numerous health hazards, and it can be fatal.

How is heroin made?

Heroin production is mainly focused around Central Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Central and North America. Once the flowers of the opium poppy have fallen away, the seed pods are harvested to be processed for opium.

The sap, a thick, sticky gum, is collected and formed into ‘bricks’, wrapped in cloth or leaves ready to be sold to dealers via the black market, and then to heroin processing plants.

Morphine is separated from the opium by adding the gum to boiling water, together with calcium oxide (lime), which causes the morphine to float on the top, where it can be skimmed off.

It is boiled with ammonia, then passed through a filter before being boiled again to reduce it down to a brown, clay-like paste which is dried and made into bricks of morphine base.

It then goes through a series of complex, hazardous processes to be transformed into heroin. This involves boiling the morphine with a range of powerful chemicals and separating the resulting mixture.

These chemicals include; hydrochloric acid, ether, chloroform, sodium carbonate, and acetic anhydride.

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What are the different types of heroin?

Different methods of production, and ‘cutting’, have led to a range of heroin types.

‘Cutting’ occurs when the drug is mixed with other substances to maximise the dealer’s profits while leaving enough of the drug to ensure that the user comes back for more.

These impurities not only change the appearance of the drug but add to the potential health risks. Common additives for cutting include sugar, talc, lactose, caffeine, and quinine.

There are several types of heroin in circulation:

  • White Powder – this can actually be off-white, beige, or even pink in colour due to cutting agents
  • Brown Powder – generally cheaper than white powder but more refined than the Black Tar from which it is made, this usually originates from Mexico. It is crushed to make it easier to snort or smoke
  • China White – once a name for very pure white powder heroin, this is now used to describe a lethal combination of heroin and Fentanyl
  • Black Tar – not as refined as the powders, this form appears as hard rocks or a gooey gum, due to contamination during processing
  • Scramble – capsules containing one of the powders along with any number of potent additives
  • Gunpowder Heroin – similar in appearance to dried coffee, this crumbly form is reported to be a stronger version of black tar heroin
  • Speedball – a potent and dangerous mix of heroin and a stimulant such as cocaine. The two drugs have opposite effects on the body, causing massive stress overload

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use

Below we have listed some of the most common signs of heroin use to keep an eye out for:

Heroin use puts the body under immense strain, damaging the immune system and internal organs, the kidney, liver, and heart in particular. Continued use – especially when administered intravenously – increases the chances of contracting HIV or hepatitis. There is also a high chance of a bad reaction to the ‘cutting’ agents with which the drug has been mixed, as there is no way of telling what substances they may be – until it is too late. Some of these additives clog the arteries, causing strokes and heart attacks as well as multiple organ damage.
Every single use of heroin carries the risk of overdose, either as the dose was too strong or taken too soon after the last fix. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, a weakened pulse, shallow breaths, spasms or twitching, and a blue tinge to the mouth and/or fingertips. If you recognise these signs and suspect an overdose it is vitally important to call for medical assistance immediately.
These are particularly severe and can be a huge obstacle in curing people of addiction. It begins with irritability, anxiety and aching muscles, along with sweating and a runny nose, and works up to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, and cold sweats. Withdrawal happens because the brain can’t produce enough endorphins to mimic the effect of the drug, requiring more of the drug to feel ‘normal’.
The emotional trauma connected with heroin abuse is a major issue, leading to mood swings, drastic changes in behaviour – including suicidal tendencies – addiction and absolute dependency. This is why recovering addicts are encouraged to take this difficult journey with someone to guide them every step of the way. Because of the way heroin changes the chemistry of the brain, the problem of heroin abuse is compounded by acute depression – both problems must be identified early and treated simultaneously if recovery is to be successful.

How Does Heroin Affect The Brain?

The human brain is a complex machine, containing receptors that react to chemicals we introduce into our bodies, usually in the form of food and drink. These are natural, helping our bodies function properly.

When people inject, snort or smoke heroin, the drug enters the bloodstream and quickly makes its way to the brain where it attaches itself to opioid receptors.

The brain produces endorphins naturally, which interact with the opioid receptors to regulate and control various actions within the body, including pain, stress, our appetite, our breathing, and even our bodily functions.

Once in the brain, heroin is converted to two different chemicals; morphine and MAM-6. These attach themselves to the receptors and within twenty minutes there is an intense ‘high’ that lasts up to fifteen minutes.

When heroin floods the brain, the opioid receptors are overwhelmed. These receptors cause you to have ‘happy’ feelings under normal circumstances.

But when the heroin attaches itself the brain experiences a massive surge of ‘false’ happiness, that can even block feelings of pain.

In high doses, opioids affect the brain in such a way that it can’t perform the usual bodily functions.

heroin brain

Long-Term Effects On The Brain

One of the dangers of long-term heroin use is that it can cause a drastic slowing down of your breathing and heart rate. This dramatically reduces the amount of oxygen flowing to the brain.

If this falls to dangerously low levels, it could result in hypoxic brain injury, where brain cells begin to die. In many cases, this leads to permanent brain damage or death.

Although overdoses are obviously serious, the chances of survival depend on whether the brain has been starved of oxygen.

Another significant issue of heroin use is that it interferes with normal brain function. When we experience something that makes us happy, our brains remember this and guide us towards more of the same experiences.

Heroin use overwhelms this system, pushing us to seek more – regardless of the consequences.

How Does Heroin Become Addictive?

Although the exact reason for heroin dependency is still being debated by experts, heroin addiction is thought to occur precisely because of the reasons just mentioned above.

It is a destructive cycle, as the brain starts to crave more of the drug in order to achieve the same level of ‘happiness’, however fleeting it may be. The more it gets, the more it wants – or needs – to get ‘high’.

 

Users can start to build a tolerance to the drug, meaning that more is required, and with increasing frequency. The more heroin is used, the higher the risk to the user and the harder it becomes to break the cycle.

 

Another possible cause of long-term addiction is that the endorphins are no longer capable of stopping pain naturally, and so the body craves the thing it knows will help – heroin.

Why Do People Abuse Heroin?

Being an opioid, heroin blocks pain and gives an intense feeling of happiness and relaxation. People turn to drugs for a variety of reasons, very often to escape their daily life or circumstances.

Prescription drugs are harder to secure, which has led to an increase in illegal drug use; around four out of five heroin users previously took (and abused) prescription opioids.

One major factor in heroin abuse is that addicts are more likely to take it to stop the symptoms of withdrawal, rather than to get high.

How Do People Abuse Heroin?

There are three usual ways, each one carrying its own risks:

  • Snorting – considered the ‘safer’ method, this is also known as insufflation
  • Smoking – the drug is heated on tinfoil and inhaled, sending it to your brain very quickly
  • Injecting – also known as ‘shooting’, it is usually only used by those who have been addicted for months or even years. It delivers the whole dose to your brain

Recognising Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction is often difficult to detect at first, as users tend to very accomplished at covering their tracks.

Do not simply rely on looking for signs of needle marks on the arms, as someone who is new to heroin is less likely to inject it.
Pharmaceutical Drugs Icon
Instead, watch out for telltale signs such as these:

  • A ‘flushed’ complexion
  • Constricted pupils and/or bloodshot eyes
  • Sudden sleepiness and heaviness
  • A change in behaviour patterns‘(avoiding company, being secretive, seeming demotivated)
  • A change in appearance (lack of care over how they look, dirty clothes, unshaven or lacking make-up)
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Deep, slow breathing
  • Lack of self-control

These are just a few symptoms to look out for, and clearly some of these could be entirely unconnected with heroin abuse.

But if you observe several of these over a short period, especially if accompanied by the finding of some of the paraphernalia listed above, then you can be fairly certain that heroin addiction is a possibility.

Heroin Addiction FAQ’s

Heroin use puts the body under immense strain, damaging the immune system and internal organs, the kidney, liver, and heart in particular. Continued use – especially when administered intravenously – increases the chances of contracting HIV or hepatitis. There is also a high chance of a bad reaction to the ‘cutting’ agents with which the drug has been mixed, as there is no way of telling what substances they may be – until it is too late. Some of these additives clog the arteries, causing strokes and heart attacks as well as multiple organ damage.
Every single use of heroin carries the risk of overdose, either as the dose was too strong or taken too soon after the last fix. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, a weakened pulse, shallow breaths, spasms or twitching, and a blue tinge to the mouth and/or fingertips. If you recognise these signs and suspect an overdose it is vitally important to call for medical assistance immediately.
These are particularly severe and can be a huge obstacle in curing people of addiction. It begins with irritability, anxiety and aching muscles, along with sweating and a runny nose, and works up to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, and cold sweats. Withdrawal happens because the brain can’t produce enough endorphins to mimic the effect of the drug, requiring more of the drug to feel ‘normal’.

The emotional trauma connected with heroin abuse is a major issue, leading to mood swings, drastic changes in behaviour – including suicidal tendencies – addiction and absolute dependency.


This is why recovering addicts are encouraged to take this difficult journey with someone to guide them every step of the way.


Because of the way heroin changes the chemistry of the brain, the problem of heroin abuse is compounded by acute depression – both problems must be identified early and treated simultaneously if recovery is to be successful.

Consequences Of Heroin Addiction

The consequences can be extreme, having a lifelong impact.

  • Emotional – Isolation due to damaged relationships, loneliness, lack of self-esteem and a feeling of worthlessness. Severe depression, suicidal tendencies
  • Financial – Loss of employment and income, stealing to pay for a ‘fix’, borrowing or seeking loans, severe debt, loss of home
  • Physical – High risk of serious illness, or even death, from overdose, contaminated drugs, contaminated needles, organ damage, and hypoxic brain injury. Skin and complexion are affected, aging the addict prematurely
  • Family – Dealing with an addict puts tremendous strain on families. Addicts will lie, cheat, and steal to get a fix, even when they don’t want to. Getting that fix becomes more important than anything. Trust becomes impossible, and family members, however much they love and sympathise with the addict, can only take so much before they say enough is enough. Living with an addict becomes impossible, leading to the break up of families.

What Do We Provide?

All of our facilities and centers offer the highest standard of services for heroin addiction which inclue:

 

  1. Prescribed Medical Detoxification
  2. Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation
  3. Proven Counselling Treatments
  4. Holistic Therapies
  5. 12 Step Recovery Model
  6. One-to-One & Therapy
  7. Motivational Interviewing
 

  1. Trauma therapy
  2. Psychiatric assessments
  3. Dual diagnosis care
  4. Aftercare & Ongoing Therapies
  5. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  6. CQC Registered
  7. 24-Hour Care

At Rehab 4 Addiction, we pride ourselves on the quality and depth of advice we provide to those seeking recovery from heroin addiction. Our admissions team offer a referral service for people seeking treatment for heroin addiction, drug addiction, behavioural addiction, and eating disorders.
Call 0800 140 4690 today to speak to one of our team