What Are Physical Dangers of Heroin Abuse?
Chronic users of heroin can face a number of health problems, including:
- Liver disease
- Pulmonary infections
- Collapsed veins
- Chronic constipation
- Kidney disease
- Heart infections
- Skin infections
- Deterioration of white matter in the brain
- Lack of stress-control skills
- Infertility (in women)
- Diminished sex drive
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Heroin, an illicit opioid, is experiencing a resurgence in use in America, in part due to the prescription opioid abuse epidemic.
As authorities have clamped down on the distribution of pain-relieving medications, such as hydrocodone and Opana, individuals who are addicted to these medications have sought out heroin as an alternative.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) provides accurate and thorough data on the different patterns of drug abuse in America. The 2013 NSDUH surveyed heroin use and made the following findings:
- In the year prior to the survey, an estimated 681,000 Americans used heroin.
- Compared to survey years 2002-2005 (314,000-455,000), the number of prior year heroin users rose.
- As far as new heroin users, an estimated 169,000 Americans aged 12 or older used heroin for the first time within the year prior to the survey.
- The number of new initiates into heroin use in 2013 was similar to 2002-2005 and 2007-2012.
Common Health Effects Related to Heroin
The impact of heroin on a person’s health will depend on several factors, including the person’s existing health status, stature, weight, sex, volume of drug intake, method of drug intake, length of abuse, simultaneous use of alcohol or other drugs, and whether there is an underlying psychiatric condition. Even short-term heroin use causes health effects.
The most common side effects related to heroin use may be temporary and subside, but they always present an unnecessary risk to one’s health.
After heroin use, a person can experience the following typical short-term health-related effects:
- A euphoric rush (can last 3-5 hours)
- A trance-like state (for 4-6 hours)
- Warm, flushed skin
- Sensation of heaviness in limbs
- Severe itching
- Nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss
As a person continues to use heroin, another health condition is going to eventually set in: physical dependence. Whether the drug involved is lawful or illicit, physical dependence is the body’s response to the drug’s ongoing presence. The two main hallmarks of physical dependence are tolerance and withdrawal. Interestingly, the body adapts to a drug in order to promote survival; however, the body can undermine survival through the natural process of tolerance. Over time, a person will require more of a familiar drug to achieve the desired effects. As the volume of the drug increases so too does the margin of risk to the user’s health.
Since the body has habituated to the presence of the drug, when the familiar level of use drops off or stops altogether, the person will experience withdrawal symptoms. A typical withdrawal experience may include vomiting, muscle pain, restlessness, and drug cravings. Over time, physical dependence can lead to a clinical case of addiction.
In addition to chronic conditions and infectious diseases, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, ongoing heroin use can cause changes to the brain.
Once heroin use has impacted both the physiology and physical structure of the brain, there will be long-term disturbances to the brain’s hormonal and neuronal systems.
The CDC found a fivefold increase in the total number of heroin overdose fatalities from 2001-2013. Men are more likely than women to experience an overdose, but heroin overdose fatalities showed an increase from 2010-2013 for both sexes. Compared to 2001-2009, each year from 2010-2013 showed a sharp jump in the number of deaths associated with heroin use.
In the 1960s and 1970s heroin use in America reached epidemic heights. As a result, there was considerable public education about the many hazards associated with this potent opiate. Still today, there is a general public awareness about the harrowing effects of heroin. However, the number of 2013 heroin overdose fatalities was at an all-time high for the decade.
A heroin overdose does not always lead to fatality. In order to prevent fatality, it is critical to know the symptoms of a heroin overdose, which include:
Signs of a heroin overdose and any severely adverse reactions to this opioid require emergency medical services. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2009, there were an estimated 213,118 reported emergency department visits related to heroin use. Fortunately, when compared to the heroin overdose rate for 2009 (more than 3,000 people), it is clear that only a fraction of the individuals who seek emergency treatment will suffer a fatal overdose. There does not appear to be data available on the number of people who fatally overdose on heroin without seeking emergency care.
All heroin use is illicit. Heroin use, therefore, always involves a criminal element.
Exposure to drug dealers and other addicted individuals renders a person vulnerable to arrest, fights, and other legal trouble. As heroin is illegal under both federal and state laws, apprehended individuals involved with heroin (manufacturing, sale, and possession) may face criminal sanctions. There are many ways in which heroin use can lead to prison.
Heroin use can also result in driving under the influence (DUI) or “drugged driving.”According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), individuals who drive while under the influence of heroin exhibit slow driving, diminished vehicle control, weaving in the road, delayed reaction times, an inability to follow road signs, and may even fall asleep at the wheel.
The dangers inherent in heroin-involved DUI are apparent, but it is still instructive to know the severity of the problem.
According to one NHTSA study, in 2009, 18 percent of drivers who died in an accident were found to have at least one drug in their system.
A dedication to recovery and the attainment of sobriety can heal personal relationships as well as provide authorities (such as child protective services) with a reason to review a prior decision (such as the removal of children). There is always hope.
Comprehensive addiction treatment can help individuals achieve sobriety and balance after heroin addiction.