Heroin is widely considered to be the most addictive drug on the planet, with millions of Americans using the drugs at least once in their lifetimes. Around a quarter of people who experiment with heroin will go on to develop an opiate addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, (NIDA).
Heroin is an opiate drug that has an intense effect on an individual’s brain and for which the potential for overdose is extremely high. In recent years, there has been an alarming surge in opioid abuse numbers which the media is declaring an epidemic.
Addiction specialists have attributed this increase to the widespread use of opioid-based prescription painkillers. Although research has shown just a small percentage of people taking prescription opioids go on to use or abuse heroin, around 50% of heroin users are said to have started with prescription medications.
With more people receiving opioid addiction help than ever before, our understanding of this particular form of substance abuse has improved considerably. However, not many people realize the dangers of using an opioid painkiller, mainly because they were introduced to them by their trusted physician.
So why does abuse of painkillers lead to individuals using heroin in so many cases today? Is it possible that a prescription medication could be as potent as its street equivalent? Are all opioids as addictive as each other and why? Do people suffer the same effects of addiction if they abused prescription medications or heroin?
In this article, we attempt to provide the answers.
What’s The Difference between Prescription Opioids and Heroin?
Although prescription opioids and heroin are very similar in terms of the effects they induce, there is a significant difference. Prescription painkillers use a synthetic form of opium poppy extract called opioids and heroin is derived directly from the poppy itself and known as an opiate drug.
The way opioid and opiate drugs work is by interacting with neurotransmitters that communicate messages to the brain. There are numerous opioid receptors in the brain and depending on the area receiving stimulation; they can influence a person’s perception of pain, reducing symptoms considerably. Essentially, both heroin and prescription painkillers affect the brain’s reward center to flood the body with pleasant sensations known as a “high”.
Although the effects of both opioids and heroin can be extremely stimulating, they are actually depressants. This is particularly so with this type of mind-altering drug because of the extreme high the user feels that is inevitably followed by a sometimes devastating comedown.
It is very easy to overdose on either prescription opioids or heroin and a person’s breathing and heart rate are likely to become seriously impaired should they consume too much. Overdosing on heroin can cause depressed respiration, coma and sometimes death.
In terms of physical and psychological effects, opioid painkillers and heroin produce similar effects. When someone is experiencing a high from either drug, they will most likely feel:
- An exaggerated sense of euphoria
- Decreased awareness of chronic pain
- Sluggishness and apathy
- Confusion and delirium
- Nausea and vomiting
How Prescription Opioid Dependence and Addiction Develop
Prescription opioids are invariably prescribed for chronic pain conditions. The term “chronic” refers to an illness, condition or injury that will take weeks, possibly months to heal. Because of the significant addictive potential opioids have, physicians are generally cautious in their doses, particularly when introducing the medications for the first time.
Although this is the responsible approach, it also increases the risk of a person developing opioid dependence. This is because the body is very quick to develop tolerance to substances that are taken repeatedly. When someone’s body has become tolerant to the effect of painkillers, it can result in them needing stronger doses in order to manage their pain. In the face of a physician reluctant to increase an opioid dose, some find themselves seeking out illegal alternatives or resort to using fraudulent ways of obtaining the drugs they need.
Pills to Heroin: A Terrifyingly Common Transition
As mentioned above, it has been shown that only a small percentage of people taking prescription painkillers go on to use heroin. However, many people with a history of heroin addiction or who are currently struggling were initially introduced to the drug after being prescribed opioid painkillers.
There are a few theories as to why those people dependent on painkiller eventually transition to using heroin. The most alarming is the fact that heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription painkillers, particularly if someone has developed tolerance and is seeking a higher dose.
Despite the significant opioid crisis America faces, with improved addiction resources, it is possible to make big strides towards combating it. Improving public awareness of drug dependence and addiction is another area that could make a big difference to society’s understanding of the illness.
The addiction industry is well-armed for combating addiction in individuals seeking help for heroin or prescription drug abuse. There are now numerous opiate addiction treatment methodologies and therapy techniques that combine to provide a wide range of approaches to achieving recovery. Despite the very obvious dangers of opiate or opioid drugs, there is a treatment path to recovery for every individual currently struggling with addiction or dependence on them.
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