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Opioids & Heroin

What are opioids? What is heroin?
Opioids are derived from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. Patients with severe or chronic pain may be prescribed opioid-based medications such as morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone. Fentanyl is used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery in hospitals or prescribed as a patch. As a street drug, it is an illegally produced compound and may be secretly mixed with heroin or pressed into a pill to make it a more potent product. Many of the overdose deaths are being caused by fentanyl. Heroin is also derived from poppy plants. It is usually found as a white or brown powder or black sticky substance (“black tar heroin”).


How is it used?
Heroin can be used in multiple different ways. It can be injected, inhaled, or smoked. Any method of heroin use can cause immediate harm and lead to addiction.


Why do people use opioids?
Opioids are used by a number of people with severe or chronic pain. These people are legitimately prescribed opioid-based medications and most are able to use them appropriately. However, for some individuals, they develop an addiction and, after their prescriptions are stopped, may resort to street medications and heroin to cope with their pain and addiction. Other people start using these substances for a variety of reasons including to cope with physical/emotional pain and traumas, peer pressure to experiment, self-medication for untreated mental health problems, and to obtain feelings of pleasure and well-being.


Health Effects of Heroin Use
When it comes to using heroin, there are many different health effects it can cause. Some of these different health effects include risk of death, dependency, deterioration of the brain’s white matter, spontaneous abortion, and infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of heart lining and valves, abscesses, constipation, liver or kidney disease.


Why Do Some People Become Addicted?
There are a number of genetic, biological, social, and psychological factors that contribute to people developing an addiction. People who have experienced trauma and who lack social supports are at an increased risk for developing an addiction. The earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to serious abuse. It is a complex disease that requires much more than a strong will or good intentions to stop. Although the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary, the brain changes that occur over time challenge a person’s ability to stop.


Signs of an Overdose
The signs of a heroin overdose include shallow breathing, pinpoint pupils, clammy skin, convulsions, and coma. To help save someone from an overdose, you can use Naloxone (Narcan). Project Dawn is a community-based overdose education and naloxone distribution program through the Portage County Health Department. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an overdose caused by an opioid drug. Contact the Health Department for more information and to make an appointment. 705 Oakwood St., 2nd floor, Ravenna 330-296-9919.


There are many myths when it comes to drugs. For example, many people believe that once a person uses heroin, they are hooked for life and there is no hope. This is not true. It is estimated that about 23% of people who use become dependent on it (NIH, 2014). Recovery is possible with treatment.


Another myth is that more than anything else, drug addiction is a character flaw. Drug addiction is a brain disease. Drugs can cause changes in the molecules and cells that make up the brain, that result in mood changes, changes in memory processes, and in such motor skills as walking and talking. These changes have a huge influence on all aspects of a person’s behavior. The drug becomes the single most powerful motivator in a drug abusers existence. Similar to other chronic diseases like diabetes, addiction can be managed although relapses are common and are part of the recovery process.


A third myth is that abstinence is the only true recovery method and that medication assisted treatment is just replacing one drug for another. Medications such as Suboxone and Vivitrol are prescribed or administered under monitored, controlled conditions and are safe and effective for treating opioid addiction. They reduce drug cravings and prevent relapse without causing a “high.” The medications are used in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a whole patient approach to treating addiction.


Recovery is possible for those who are dependent on heroin and other opioids. Drug addiction is a complex illness, and there is not just one solution to fit everyone. Effective treatment plans incorporate many components and should be assessed continually and modified to meet changing needs. Relapse is possible and it is important for families to understand that recovery from a substance use disorder can be a long-term process requiring multiple episodes of treatment. Many drug addicted individuals also have mental illnesses that need to be treated.