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    Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, which is obtained from opium poppy plants—otherwise known as an ‘opioid.’ It is a ‘downer,’ or depressant, that affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain.[1]

    Also known as dope, junk, horse and smack among, other slang terms, heroin is a white to dark brown powder or tar-like substance. It used in a variety of ways, often injected into a vein or muscle, placed on tinfoil and inhaled as smoke through a straw or snorted as powder.[2]

    This drug causes a surge of euphoria (“rush”) accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin and heavy limbs. Following this initial euphoria, a person goes “on the nod,” an alternately wakeful and drowsy state.

    Understand the risks

    Long-term effects appear after repeated use for some period of time. Chronic use may lead to collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses (swollen tissue with pus), constipation and gastrointestinal cramping, and liver or kidney disease. Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia, may result from the poor health of the person using heroin as well as from the drug’s effects on breathing. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin may have additives that do not really dissolve and clog the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs. With regular use, tolerance develops. This means a person must use more heroin to achieve the same intensity or effect.

    As higher doses are used over time, physical dependence and addiction develop. With physical dependence, the body has adapted to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms may occur if use is reduced or stopped. Withdrawal, which in people who use heroin regularly may occur as early as a few hours after the last administration, produces drug craving, restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), kicking movements (“kicking the habit”) and other symptoms. Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week.

    Heroin use is associated with a number of serious health conditions, including fatal overdose, spontaneous abortion, and infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV (because these diseases are transmitted through contact with blood or other bodily fluids, which can occur when sharing needles or other injection drug use equipment.)[3]

    Prevent use

    The misuse of prescription opioid pain medicine (like OxyContin, Percocet, fentanyl and others) can lead to heroin use. In the case your child or anyone else in your household has been prescribed an opioid pain reliever, take steps to prevent misuse.

    The overprescribing of prescription pain relievers has been a major cause of the opioid epidemic. Know what to ask when your child is prescribed opioids.
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    If your child is in recovery or you're worried about them using opioids, there are many alternatives that can help alleviate their pain.
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    Two-thirds of teens who report misusing Rx medication get it from friends, family and acquaintances. Learn proper storage and disposal to help prevent misuse.
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    Learn about how the opioid epidemic started, how you can keep your community safe, and how to help a loved one who is struggling -- download your eBook now.
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    Identify & address use

    Signs of use include fatigue, slowed breathing, fading in and out of consciousness, flushed skin, nausea, vomitting and “track marks” from injection. If you’re concerned your child may be using heroin or other substances, the following can help you address the behavior and get them needed treatment.

    It can be scary if your child is using drugs or alcohol, and it's important to confront it. We're here to give you tips and strategies on how to do it.
    Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) help treat opioid use disorder by reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings and helping to prevent relapse. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, it is considered the gold standard of care.
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    In the event of an opioid overdose (including heroin and prescribed pain medications), naloxone can reverse an overdose and save a life.
    Watch this video series to help you understand the relationship between (and risks of) opioid addiction and IV drug use, and how to best to help your child.
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    Last Updated

    October 2023

    [1]“Heroin.” DEA,

    [2]NIDA. “Heroin.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 7 Jun. 2018, Accessed 14 Dec. 2018.

    [3]“Get Smart About Drugs.” Find Help | Get Smart About Drugs,