The effects of addiction are numerous, diverse, and in many cases quite profound. Often beginning with recreational substance abuse, individuals who continue to consume mind-altering substance need bigger and bigger doses as they chase the desired effects. Over a relatively short period of time, the human body becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol or drugs, relying on these substances for even natural bodily functions. As such, the reinforcement of addictive behavior is twofold: Individuals want to be frequently intoxicated while the body becomes dependant on regular consumption of alcohol and/or drugs.
It goes without saying that any chemical substance carries a high level of risk and an inherent danger. Even alcohol—a legal drug in the United States as well as being widely available in most other places—has a high level of risk as well as being easily abused and frequently accessible even to those who are underage. Saying that one drug is especially dangerous shouldn’t give one the impression that there are drugs out there that aren’t dangerous since all drugs can become addictive, but there are certain substances that have been found to be especially addictive and dangerous for a number of other reasons. Opioids like heroin and prescription opiate painkillers are some of the most highly addictive, widely abused, and dangerous substances in the world. The following offers a concise profile of heroin and opiate addiction, overdose, and treatment.
Heroin and Opiates: What’s Are They? Is There a Difference?
The opium obtained from the opium poppy has a long history of use for a variety of medical and even recreational applications. Opium is obtained from the opium poppy and became the source of chemicals that were structurally similar to natural opium, including morphine and its derivative heroin. Morphine was the first derivative of opium as it’s a primary active ingredient in the opium poppy; however, heroin is a semi-synthetic derivative of morphine, creating by modifying the morphine molecule in the lab setting. After isolating morphine and using it to create heroin, there were a host of other structurally similar chemicals that were synthetically created by chemists, including many that are still prescribed today such as hydrocodone (Vicodin and Zohydro), oxycodone (OxyContin), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and so on.
There are many structural similarities between the opium obtained from the opium poppy and the substances it was used to create: morphine followed by heroin, and then the man-made derivatives that are still prescribed today. Whereas all of the substances that are structurally similar to opium are broadly referred to as opioids, the term “opiate” is used to refer only to a synthetic chemical that is structurally similar to opium. As such, opiates are the synthetic medications that are prescribed to treat conditions that include moderate to severe pain. In fact, their strength in treating pain resulted in their frequent use as local anesthetics during surgical procedures during the early days of experimentation with opioids. Outside of surgical applications, there is a decreased perception of and reaction to pain as well as an increase in tolerance to pain when an individual consumes heroin or opiates. Binding with special opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and a number of other organs throughout the body, opioids not only reduce the capacity for one to feel pain, but they also have a number of sedative effects such as slowing one’s respiratory system and, in higher doses, producing a sense of euphoria that has made them highly susceptible to abuse.
The reason that heroin is illegal while opiate painkillers are legal when prescribed for legitimate conditions is because heroin was produced by modifying morphine with acetyl molecules that made heroin significantly more effective at crossing the blood-brain barrier. As a result, heroin tends to be about three times stronger than morphine, which is already one of the strongest opioids in addition to fentanyl, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. In practice, the significantly higher strength of heroin means that users experience not only a faster onset and much stronger effects, but those who continue to use heroin will build a tolerance and develop a chemical dependency faster than they would if they were abusing prescription opiates.
Opioid Addiction, Withdrawal, and Overdose
When an individual abuses heroin or other opiates and becomes addicted, there are marked structural and functional changes in the brain, which is why the disease of addiction is referred to as a chronic, progressive brain disease. In short, opioids trigger a release of certain neurochemicals—especially dopamine and serotonin—that create feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Over time, those who abuse opioids require greater amounts of their drugs of choice in order to achieve the same, desired effects, which makes it incredibly easy for opioid addicts to overdose. Moreover, the brain begins to produce less and less of these essential neurochemicals on its own as individuals continue to abuse opioids over time, becoming increasingly dependent on the drugs to elevate the brain’s neurochemicals so they can maintain a more natural level of functioning. When an individual who has been abusing opioids goes a period of time—usually about six hours or so—without consuming opioids, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms due to the body’s need for the drugs in order to produce essential neurochemicals.
Withdrawal from heroin and opiate addiction is considered one of the most unpleasant withdrawal experiences by many drug users. Lasting up to a week following the last dose, opioid withdrawal includes trembling, insomnia, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, sweating, hold and/or cold flashes, elevated body temperature, lethargy, restlessness, runny nose, dilated pupils, watery eyes, physical pain in the joints and muscles, agitation, and depression. Though not fatal, fear of withdrawal is one of the primary deterrents that prevent opioid addicts from seeking treatment in order to overcome chemical dependency. After a week, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms begin to subside with mild symptoms persisting for about a month. In cases of severe or prolonged addiction to heroin and/or opiates, individuals might experience post acute withdrawal syndrome for several months up to a year after the last dose.
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction to heroin, opiate painkillers, or another dangerous substance, the Palm Beach Institute can help. We have a group of skilled, caring recovery specialists available to offer free consultations and assessments. It’s our goal to help those suffering from chemical dependency to find the addiction treatment programs that best address their recovery needs and help them return to lives of health, sobriety, and happiness.