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What is heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, which in turn is derived from raw opium (the dried sap of opium poppy). In its pure form, heroin appears as a white powder with a bitter taste. However, heroin sold in streets can appear as off-white to brown powder, or as black sticky goo. Heroin has a chemical formula C21H23NO5 but is also known by names such as smack, H, skag, junk, brown sugar, horse, and black tar. Almost all heroin sold today are made illegally in clandestine laboratories.

To make heroin, dried opium sap pieces are first boiled in water with lime to precipitate morphine at the top. This morphine is then drawn off, reheated with ammonia and filtered and boiled again. This process yields heroin that appears as a brown paste.

In the medical sense, heroin is called diamorphine or diacetylmorphine. Heroin is taken into the body via injection (most common, with almost instant effects), smoking and snorting, and less commonly, by oral consumption. Heroin is highly addictive and is therefore illegal in many countries. When people take it even for a short period of time, a strong need for heroin is quickly developed and long term heroin addiction treatment is needed. But what makes heroin so addictive? And why it is illegal in many places?

Heroin effects

Heroin is a strong opioid analgesic, like morphine. Heroin is considered a potent depressant because it reduces sensation of pain (anesthesia) and also slows breathing, lowers the heartbeat and blood pressure. What happens for heroin to take effect on the body?

When heroin is abused, it is transformed into morphine and goes straight to the brain in a very short span of time. However, unlike morphine, heroin has a markedly addictive effect after first few uses. Why? Because heroin effects include euphoria, an intense sense of well being.

In fact, heroin users feel a sense of relaxation plus intense acute euphoria (termed a ‘rush’) soon after administration of the drug. This rush may also be accompanied by flushing of skin, dry mouth with nausea, vomiting and severe itching. This rush lasts only for a short time, after which then it quickly subsides. To feel high again, the user must again take heroin, sometimes at a larger dose to overcome tolerance.

Another effect of heroin use is increased tolerance. Generally, heroin use causes tolerance quickly, which means you need to increase successive doses taken just to feel the same effect. Among habit-forming drugs, heroin is one of the most addictive. First time users of heroin can easily get addicted to it in a short period of time.

Heroin overdose

Heroin overdose is a medical emergency which happens when large amounts of heroin are suddenly introduced in the body. Injecting heroin makes you most susceptible to overdose because this method of delivery travels to and crosses the blood-brain barrier almost instantly. In the event of overdose, heroin sends the nervous system into delirium, disorientation and coma.

A person experiencing heroin overdose may manifest symptoms such as:

  • bluish fingernails
  • coma
  • constipation
  • discolored tongue
  • disorientation and delirium
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • pinpoint pupils
  • shallow or no breathing, or slow and difficult breathing
  • snoring
  • weak pulse, and low blood pressure

Heroin overdose is always a potential threat to life, and therefore must be addressed as soon as possible. When heroin overdose is suspected, you should call your local emergency phone hotline or national poison control center.

A person who you suspect is experiencing heroin overdose must be kept constantly awake, or must be awakened from sleep. Nothing should be put into their mouth due to risk of choking. If seizures occur, do not restrain the victim; move things away to prevent injury. Always stay with the victim until medical help arrives.

For more info on heroin’s addictive properties and treatment, see:


Is heroin a narcotic?

Is heroin a narcotic?

May 30th, 2016

Yes, heroin is an illicit narcotic drug. More on the legal and medical status of heroin here.

4 When does heroin peak?

When does heroin peak?

April 16th, 2016

Heroin peak concentrations are achieved fairly quickly any way administrated. More here on what heroin does to the body, with a section at the end for your questions.

5 Methadone vs Buprenorphine: Which is better for treating heroin addiction?

Methadone vs Buprenorphine: Which is better for treating heroin addiction?

April 11th, 2016

A comparison of the risks, side effects, legal status, and abuse potential for both methadone and buprenorphine from expert, Derek Simon, PhD. More here.

9 I Wore This Dress To Bury My Son

I Wore This Dress To Bury My Son

February 22nd, 2016

by Trisha Grose and Richie Farrell Last week, I thought about sticking a knife into my neck. The plan was to hold the blade close to my carotid artery, clench my eyes tight and slit my throat from ear to ear. Since Brendan left, I’ve thought of a million ways to kill myself. This morning, […]

Prescription drug abuse can lead to teen heroin addiction

Prescription drug abuse can lead to teen heroin addiction

February 19th, 2016

A very basic review of how opioid pain killers are like heroin…and how teens move from one drug-of-choice to another. Insights for parents, with a list of safety tips and action steps.

1 I'm a Junkie and Love Saved Me

I’m a Junkie and Love Saved Me

February 5th, 2016

Are you fighting a losing battle with heroin? Here’s a story from fellow junkie, Richie Farrell, to inspire hope and courage.

17 Safe detox treatments for heroin

Safe detox treatments for heroin

February 1st, 2016

A description of what to expect during heroin detox, as well as main treatments used during withdrawal. More here on how to get off heroin safely.

6 What do heroin addicts act like?

What do heroin addicts act like?

November 25th, 2015

A review of some of the more common behaviors of heroin addicts, and how you can intervene to help save a life.

Effects of heroin on sex and pregnancy (INFOGRAPHIC)

Effects of heroin on sex and pregnancy (INFOGRAPHIC)

May 24th, 2015

Heroin use affects male and female reproduction. How serious can those effects be? A visual GRAPHIC for you to LIKE > SHARE > PRINT OUT and use for class or office.

A timeline of the heroin problem in the U.S.

A timeline of the heroin problem in the U.S.

May 13th, 2015

A brief chronology of heroin-related events since the 1850’s in the U.S.

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6 Responses to “Heroin
3:10 am August 27th, 2016

My son is a heroin addict and I have learned more about drugs and drug addiction over the last several year than I ever thought possible. I do, however, have one question I haven’t been able to find an answer for. What causes the blood spatter I find on the walls and even some ceilings? Can you help me? Thanks

5:56 pm February 7th, 2017

It’s been a while since you posted your question, and I hope you have recived an answer by now, if not here is my theory.
I am a Phlebotomist (draw blood) by trade and in my experience the only time blood may splatter on wall or as high as the ceiling would be if the IV user removed the needle prior to releasing the tourniquet. I can imagine that this may occur if the person is ‘passing out’ after injection and the needle falls out, which can happen with the pressure built up in the users vein. Some people are just good bleeders, I have pricked a finger for a capillary test and the blood arched several feet into the air, so I could see this occurring with an untrained professional as well.
I hope your son gets/got the help he needs, and that you are able to see your way through this addiction.

10:24 pm March 12th, 2017

I am a recovering heroin addict and it may be him doing when he is cleaning his needle with water and he may just be spraying it anywhere unfortunately

6:46 pm May 18th, 2017

Heroin after injection is turned rapidly in 6-Monoacetylmorphine which gives users that rush. The former metabolite is then turned into morphine after first pass metabolism.

2:15 pm July 19th, 2017

I was a pretty heavy skin popper on herion for about 4 months. I had stopped using 14 days to 16 days before my doctor did a urine test. do you think it will show up in my urine?

10:34 am July 29th, 2017

@steven I do the same thing and my father gets mad sometimes after I shoot up in my bathroom I draw up water to clean out the syringe and carelessly spray it anywhere, or sometimes when the syringe gets clogged by coagulated blood I push the plunger down really really hard and the blood squirts everywhere. Im almost 100 percent sure this is the reason you find blood splAtters on the ceiling and walls

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