Heroin and other opioids are among the most dangerous, addictive drugs. They have the potential to cause severe physical and psychological harm, with side effects that can last a lifetime.
The opioid epidemic has become a severe health crisis in many parts of the world, including the United States. In 2021 alone alone, more than 80,000 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses. When compared with alcohol related deaths, which sat just above 52,000 in 2021, America’s opioid-related death rate are more than 13% higher.
But what is is about heroin and other opioid drugs that make them so addictive? Why do they have this level of control over uses and what can be done about it? In this article, we explore the reason behind opioids’ high addiction levels and what members of the community can do to help combat the opioid crisis.
Why Are Opioids So Addictive?
Opioids are highly addictive drugs that act on the brain’s reward system. When they’re consumed, they stimulate the release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that produces immense feelings of pleasure. That surge of dopamine produces a euphoric high—it’s this feeling of euphoria that reinforces continued subsequent drug use. As the brain adapts to the presence of opioids, even after just one or two uses, the user requires higher amounts to achieve the same euphoric feelings, resulting an increased tolerance for the drug and an elevated risk for overdose.
Opioid addiction is complex. It involves a combination biological, psycholgical and social factors. Further to that, genetics, stress, trauma and environmental factors also play a role in the development of opioid addictions. This can be true for high-toxicity street opioids such as heroin, as well as prescription drugs such as morphine, codeine and tramadol.
Types of Opioids
There are several types of drugs that are classified as opioids. Some are highly illegal, such as heroin, while others can be legally prescribed by a licensed doctor. Types of opioids include:
How Heroin and Other Opioids Affect the Body
The harmful effects that opioids have on the body are extensive. As heroin enters the brain, the body converts it to morphine. It then binds with opioid receptors, causing an array of side effects to kick in. These include:
- Slowed breathing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Decreased heart rate
- Impaired judgment
While there can be positive aspects to some opioid medications, particularly when it comes to pain relief and sedation, when used more often or in higher doses than prescribed, or without a valid prescription, the dangers are extreme.
Even short-term heroin use or opioid overdose can lead to long-term consequences. That includes:
- Kidney failure
- Liver damage
- Lung damage
- Coordination issues
- Memory decline
Furthermore, the use of injectable opioids such as heroin can increase the risk of HIV and hepatitis C.
Women who use opioid drugs during pregnancy may experience premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage and neonatal abstinence syndrome—a condition in which a baby is born addicted to opioids and experiences withdrawals after birth.
In spite of these risks and side effects, the dopamine rush experienced by heroin users continues to lead to severe cases of addiction, and while chemistry plays a significant role in this, so do those other factors we mentioned earlier, such as genetics and socioeconomic status.
The Danger of Opioid Overdose
One of the most significant dangers of opioid use is overdose. Opioids are known to slow breathing and heart rate, and when taken in doses that are too high, that can result in respiratory depression, coma and in extreme cases, death.
As an opioid user becomes more tolerant and their typical dose increases, the risk of overdosing increases too. When opioids are taken in combination with other substances, specifically alcohol and benzodiazepines, that risk grows even higher.
Spotting and Managing an Opioid Overdose
When someone is suffering from an opioid overdose, it’s crucial to respond as quickly as possible. That means calling 9-1-1 and if possible, administering naloxone—a drug that can be injected or inhaled to rapidly reverse overdose.
Signs of an overdose include:
- Slowed breathing
- Erratic pulse
- Chest pains
- Extreme sleepiness
Combating the Opioid Epidemic
Opioid abuse has devastating consequences for individual users, families and communities. To combat this crisis, it’s essential to address the root causes of addiction and provide users with access to effective treatment and support. Several strategies have been implemented at the local, state and federal levels across the country, such as:
- Improved access to treatment: Evidence-based treatment options such as medication-assisted treatment and residential rehab have shown to be highly effective in treating addiction. Improved federal healthcare benefits and increased access to MAT, along with counseling and support groups, are helping individuals overcome addiction and reduce the risk of overdose.
- Increased education and awareness: Educating the public about the dangers of opioids and promoting safer practices in the medical community may help to prevent addiction before it starts. Additionally, providing education and making people aware of the signs of opioid overdoses and how to respond is helping reduce overdose deaths.
- Reducing access to opioids: Opioids have been overprescribed across the United States in recent decades. Addressing this issue within the medical community and increasing law enforcement efforts to disrupt the production and distribution of illicit opioids can help limit access and addiction.
- Addressing socioeconomic factors: Managing poverty, trauma and social isolation among U.S. citizens is helping to prevent addiction before it starts and promote recovery in users.
Helping Yourself or a Loved One
If you or someone you love is suffering from heroin or opioid addiction, there is hope. Seeking treatment as quickly as possible will give you or your loved one the best possible chance at a full recovery.
Your treatment options include:
- Medication-assisted therapy, using methadone or buprenorphine to ease withdrawal symptoms
- Medically-supervised detox
- Residential or outpatient addiction counseling
At Mayflower Recovery, we’re Boston’s leading addiction experts. We provide medically-supervised detox in a safe, secure setting that allows you or your loved one to effectively clear your system of opiates as comfortably as possible. Using tools such as methadone and buprenorphine, our medical staff can ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings while you or your loved one prepare to transition to a life free from drugs and take the first steps in your recovery.
To learn more about the options we provide or to start the admissions process, contact our team of compassionate admissions counselors by calling 978-737-7937 . We’ll help you determine the best course of treatment, go over your insurance and coverage options, and ensure you or your loved one can start recovery as soon as possible.