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A Parent's Guide to Drugs of Abuse - Part 6 - Heroin

Updated on September 6, 2011

This is Part 6 in a series about Drugs of Abuse. Although it is titled "A Parent's Guide" it contains information for anyone who has a loved one or friend who is addicted to drugs. Millions of people worldwide struggle with drug addiction each day. There are wasted lives, broken families, and tragic deaths. In this series I hope to provide some basic info on the more commonly encountered drugs of abuse, including some very new ones that you may not have heard about.

This segment will cover Heroin.

Heroin in powder form
Heroin in powder form | Source
Black Tar Heroin
Black Tar Heroin | Source
Heroin user kit or "works"
Heroin user kit or "works" | Source


Heroin is a highly addictive, fast acting opiate drug that is processed from morphine. Heroin is usually found in the form of a white or brown powder and is typically sold in a small folded piece of paper (called a “bindle”), glassine envelopes, and small balloons. Heroin can also be found as a black, sticky tar-like substance, known as “black tar heroin”. Tar heroin is usually sold in small foil or cellophane packets, or small balloons. Most dealers will mix heroin with other drugs or with substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine. This increases the amount the dealer has for sale and thus increases their profits. Some of the additives can be harmful to the user, in addition to the dangerous effects of using heroin itself.

Heroin is most frequently injected, although heroin of higher purity is also smoked, or sniffed (“snorted”). Heroin is sometimes mixed with a liquid and sniffed through a nasal spray bottle. Those who inject heroin use a paraphernalia set, called “works”. The set includes syringes and needles, cotton balls, spoons or bottle caps, and a "tie-off" that is wrapped around the user’s arm to make their veins more visible and easier to target for injection. Some slang names for heroin include Smack, H, Skag, and Junk.

Physical effects from heroin use can include an initial surge or “rush” of euphoria, followed by a state that alternates between being wakeful and drowsy. This state is often called being "on the nod”. The user may also experience respiratory depression, confusion or clouded thinking, nausea, and warm flushing of the skin. Heroin can cause severe constipation and difficulty in urinating.

Signs of heroin use may include constricted pupils, drowsiness, dry mouth, nausea or vomiting, confusion, rashes, and itching. Another common sign of heroin addiction are “track marks”. These are spots where injection has damaged the skin and blood vessels, often to the point where veins collapse and hard scar tissue skin has formed in that area. The tracks are a line of injection sites along a vein. To hide their heroin use some addicts will inject in spots that are not easily visible, such as between their toes or under their tongue. The risk of vein damage is higher when tar heroin is used due to its consistency.

Long term users may experience collapsed veins, infections and abscesses occurring both at injection points and from scratching, heart, liver and lung problems, and clogging of the blood vessels throughout the body. One of the most dangerous aspects of heroin use and addiction is increased tolerance to the drug. As tolerance increases the user must take more heroin to achieve the same degree of “high”. Each time the user increases their dose they risk reaching the point of overdose. Another danger is the risk of getting AIDS and hepatitis C as a result of sharing needles with other users.

Signs and effects of a heroin overdose include dangerously slowed breathing, lips and fingernails that are blue, clammy skin, convulsions, brain damage, coma, and death. Heroin overdose deaths are common.

The impact of heroin addiction is significant. Addicts are typically unable to hold a job or meet regular daily responsibilities. They experience a loss of concentration and learning ability, and suffer from clouded thought and impaired judgment. They become indifferent to their circumstances and lose interest in personal relationships beyond their fellow users. They often become involved in criminal or immoral behavior in order to obtain enough of the drug to maintain their addiction.

Withdrawal from heroin has serious physical effects and can in itself be fatal. Withdrawal effects may include irritability, severe muscle cramps and abdominal pains, anxiety, chills and other flu like symptoms, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, and insomnia. Addiction treatment must be closely monitored and should be conducted on an inpatient basis. Follow-up treatment and participation in support groups should continue for years.

Parents, be aware that teenagers can be exposed to heroin, no matter where you live. Heroin abuse and addiction is not just a "big city" problem.

Learn more about Heroin with these books


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