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Heroin


Is Heroin addiction affecting your life, or someone else’s?

This page will help you to recognise the signs, symptoms and behaviours associated with Heroin use and abuse, understand its effects, and find help.

What is Heroin?


heroinHeroin is processed from Morphine, a drug used to treat severe pain, which is a naturally occurring product extracted from the seed pod of the opium poppy. It is usually sold as a white or brownish powder; brown indicating it has been cut, or as a black sticky substance known as Black Tar Heroin.


Traditionally injected, Heroin use has shifted in recent years to snorting or smoking, partly because its purity has increased, and therefore delivers a greater effect, and partly because of the false belief that not injecting does not lead to Heroin addiction.

Intravenous injection produces an intense rush and euphoria in less than 10 seconds, injecting into muscle tissue takes longer, and when snorted or smoked its effects are not usually felt for 10 to 15 minutes and do not produce the rush.

Heroin is a particularly dangerous drug, in addition to its highly addictive nature its increasing but variable purity means the user cannot tell the actual strength of any given dose which increases the risk of overdosing. Street Heroin is cut with other drugs or other substances that are dangerous in their own right. And injecting poses the risk of spreading blood borne viruses including HIV.

Heroin is a Class A drug, which carries the penalty of 7 years in prison and an unlimited fine. For supplying Heroin, the penalty can be a life sentence in prison and an unlimited fine.

Street names for Heroin: Big H, Black tar, Boi, Brown, Brown sugar, Diesel, Dog, Dope, Gear, H, Horse, Junk, Mud , Old Steve, Shag, Skag, Smack

What are the signs of Heroin use?


Heroin use and the effects can be almost instant when injected because it enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain rapidly; the main signs are –

  • An instant rush or surge of pleasure
  • Breathing slows
  • Heart rate slows
  • Mental functioning slows
  • Physical and mental pain is suppressed
  • Limbs become heavy
  • Drowsiness for several hours
  • Nausea and vomiting, and itching

Other symptoms present themselves when the effects wear off, including –

  • Shaking, sweating and irritability, and in extreme cases hallucinations and delusions

What are the harmful effects of Heroin Abuse?


The longer term effects of Heroin use and abuse can be serious, the most serious being addiction itself characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, spiralling tolerance and physical dependence which lead to neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain, including the inability to function.

Other long term harmful effects associated with Heroin use are –

  • Weight loss
  • Stomach problems and constipation
  • Abscesses
  • Bacterial infections of blood vessels and heart valves
  • Collapsed veins
  • Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems
  • Infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C
  • Lung complications including pneumonia and tuberculosis

Heroin users are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and if they share needles and syringes. They also face a higher risk of infection by engaging in unprotected sex within the high risk using population.

What are the withdrawal symptoms when coming off Heroin?


Once a physical dependence on Heroin is established, withdrawal symptoms usually occur if use is stopped or reduced abruptly. For regular users it can occur within a few hours of the last hit. At its best withdrawal can be likened to a bad case of flu.

But in the worst cases symptoms can include –

  • Extreme craving
  • Restlessness and insomnia
  • Cold flushes with goose bumps
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Diarrhoea and vomiting
  • Spasms or kicking leg movements
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Convulsions and coma
  • Extreme depression
  • Suicidal behaviour

The worst of the withdrawal symptoms peak at around 48 hours and begin to subside after about a week, but may last for some months.

Heroin can also cause severe depression, which may last for weeks, and for some, attempts to stop using Heroin can fail because withdrawal can be overwhelming.

The cardiovascular effects can cause heart attacks and strokes in those who are heavily dependent or in poor health and sudden withdrawal can occasionally be fatal.

What treatment is available for Heroin addiction?


heroinAs with any drug addiction, the first step is to make a positive choice to change and seek help, Heroin addiction in most cases a GP is the access point to NHS funded services.

The first line of treatment is designed to stabilise the habit and the chaotic life of a Heroin addict. This is usually achieved through a prescribed Heroin substitute such as Methadone, which provides a safer alternative to illegal drugs and also avoids the need to share needles and equipment, as well as reducing the effects of withdrawal and the risk of relapse.

Methadone is essentially a synthetic opiate that blocks the effects of Heroin and has a proven record of success. For those affected by the behaviours of addiction, substitute medication also helps to stop the need to commit crimes to fund the habit.

However, Methadone only provides a short term solution serving as a stepping stone to other forms of therapy that are more likely to achieve long term abstinence and recovery.

So the next step is to come off Methadone, either by gradually reducing the dose on an outpatient basis in the community, or a medically supervised detox as an inpatient which can take 10 to 14 days depending on the individual.

After detox, a period in a residential rehab centre may be required, particularly if attempts to give up drugs in the community have failed; if there is a very strong dependency or a co dependency such as Heroin and alcohol, or where there is a difficult family situation.

Rehabilitation involves counselling and behavioural therapies on a one to one and group basis that help people to understand and overcome their addictions, and can be extended to partners and family so they can provide support for their recovery.

These approaches address the reasons behind a person’s addiction, their attitudes to drugs and the impacts on their personal relationships and domestic situation. They focus on building self-knowledge and awareness of the problems caused by Heroin, as well as improving self-esteem and building emotional support.

Counselling also teaches coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations or emotion such as frustration, anxiety or depression that often trigger a relapse.

What does Heroin treatment cost?


Residential rehab centres are usually provided by voluntary sector or private organisations. Voluntary services are free, and funding can be accessed through the community drug services or social services community care teams, but treatment at private clinics must be paid for by the individual.

Staying drug free can be sustained by joining a self-help group where people who have had similar problems meet and support one another, for example Narcotics Anonymous which has groups that meet across the country.

What help and support is there for families of Heroin users?


”Drug use affects the whole family, not just the user. When there’s a drug user in the family, whether it is a child or parent, everyone suffers and it can be so crippling that family members suffer as much as the user.

For those living close to a dependent drug user, trying to find help can be frustrating. It often seems that support is geared towards the user, when families struggle through problems too.

Fortunately there are support groups for family members too.

There are a number of groups whose sole focus is the support of family members and friends who have been affected by substance abuse and help address these issues.

One organisation that can help specifically with families and friends of drug users is Families Anonymous, who provide support to anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drug use.”

Finding help


The Inexcess Support Directory lists more than 1600 service providers throughout the UK and is divided by region to help support and advise people how to find help in their own area. Click here to visit the Support Directory.

Inexcess videos dealing with Heroin addiction