What Type of Drug Is Heroin?

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Heroin is an opioid drug that acts on the nervous system to relieve pain and induce euphoria. Opioids include prescription pain medications (e.g., oxycodone and hydrocodone) and illegal, recreationally-used drugs such as heroin and black market fentanyl. Heroin is produced from morphine, a chemical compound historically and currently used to relieve pain and experience intense feelings of pleasure and reward. Heroin use has many short- and long-term adverse health effects and a high potential for dependence and addiction.

If you suspect you or a loved one are struggling with a heroin use disorder, you are urged to seek professional help through medical detox, comprehensive treatment, and evidence-based therapies. At Guardian Recovery, we are equipped to treat substance misuse and dependence related to psychoactive substances, including heroin, other illicit and prescription drugs, and alcohol. To learn more, contact us today for additional information.

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Classification of Heroin & Variants

Heroin is a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., as designated by the Drug Enforcement Administration under the Controlled Substances Act. (1) This classification indicates that heroin is considered to have a high potential for misuse and no accepted medical purpose. All variants of heroin are Schedule I substances, highly addictive, and associated with severe health risks, including overdose and death.

Heroin Variants Include: (2)

  • White Heroin — Also known as pure or pharmaceutical-grade heroin, this is the purest form of the drug and is usually sold in white crystalline form. In this form, it can be smoked or snorted. However, the most popular method of administration is by injection.
  • Black Tar Heroin — The name of this form of heroin pretty much describes the substance’s appearance and consistency as it presents as a tar-like substance. It is typically less pure than white heroin, commonly produced in Mexico and sold in the Western United States.
  • Brown Heroin — This type of heroin is presumably purer than black tar heroin but less pure than white powder heroin. The brown color is due to impurities from the manufacturing process, which typically occurs in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

Other Narcotic Analgesics Derived From Opium Include:

  • Morphine is an opiate analgesic used for moderate-severe pain conditions like cancer.
  • Codeine is an opiate and mild pain reliever often used for headaches, colds, and mild to moderate pain. It’s usually found in prescription drugs combined with acetaminophen, such as Tylenol 3.
  • Prescription fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used clinically for severe pain management and anesthesia. However, it’s also found illicitly in the United States as a product of overseas manufacturing and trafficking. It’s approximately 50-100 times stronger than morphine and has a high risk of dependence and overdose. (3)
  • Oxycodone and hydrocodone are semi-synthetic opioids and potent analgesics derived from thebaine and prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Unfortunately, they are also frequent products of drug diversion when patients or dealers obtain them and sell them for a profit on the street.

Natural opioids, also called “opiates,” include morphine, codeine, and thebaine, which are alkaloids extracted from opium. Opiates are commonly used as an organic source for prescription and recreational drugs. “Opioids” is an umbrella term encompassing both naturally occurring and synthesized drugs. This is an important distinction in some situations, but the two terms are used interchangeably in many cases. (4)

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How Does Heroin Work?

Heroin produces its effects by interacting with opioid receptors in the body. (5) When used, heroin rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier and attaches to these receptors. When these receptors are activated, they release large amounts of the neurochemical dopamine, inducing euphoria, pain relief, and relaxation. Heroin also slows down the central nervous system, reducing breathing and heart rate. Over time, chronic heroin use can lead to chemical dependence and withdrawal effects if use is discontinued.

Sought-After Effects of Heroin Include:

  • Pain relief — Heroin can serve as a powerful painkiller, which is why it was initially used medically to treat pain.
  • Euphoria — Heroin users experience intense pleasure or bliss, which is one of its most reinforcing effects and contributes to its high potential for misuse and addiction.
  • Relaxation — Heroin use can also promote feelings of peace, warmth, and calmness, which can be attractive to people who use the drug to escape stress or unwanted feelings and emotions.

Opioid use symptoms vary depending on the type of opioid, the amount used, the duration of use, and a person’s tolerance. Still, there are many symptoms commonly experienced by many users.

Common Side Effects of Opioid Use Include:

  • Drowsiness and sedation.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Slow, shallow, or labored breathing.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Impaired coordination and balance.
  • Constipation.

Potential Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use Include:

  • Physical health problems, including liver and kidney disease, collapsed veins, skin infections, and lung complications such as pneumonia.
  • Mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
  • Addiction, characterized by tolerance, dependence, and compulsive drug-seeking behaviors.
  • Withdrawal symptoms, including depression, anxiety, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, and vomiting.
  • Social, family, and relationship challenges.
  • Financial strain due to drug-related expenses.
  • Legal issues, such as drug-related arrests.

Overdose is a serious risk associated with heroin use. Long-term users are at a higher risk of overdose due to tolerance.

Opioid Overdose Signs & Symptoms Include:

  • Very slow or stopped breathing.
  • Cyanosis, or bluish tint to the lips and fingertips.
  • Unresponsiveness or unconsciousness.
  • Cold and clammy skin.
  • Slow or weak pulse.

Opioid overdose can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect you or someone else is experiencing an opioid overdose, call 911 or your local emergency services immediately.

Other Common Schedule I Substances

Like heroin, other Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for misuse and no accepted medical purpose. Cocaine and methamphetamine, although found illicitly in most cases, are still approved for limited medical use.

Other Common Examples of Schedule I Substances Include:

  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, acid).
  • Marijuana (cannabis).
  • MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly).
  • Peyote or mescaline.
  • Psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms.
  • GHB, except for the FDA-approved product sodium oxybate (Xyrem), which is Schedule III.
  • Synthetic marijuana and analogs (Spice, K2).
  • Methaqualone (quaaludes).
  • Khat (cathinone).
  • Bath salts (MDPV).
  • Fentanyl analogs (fentanyl variation considered illicit and not approved for medical use).

According to the DEA, the possession, sale, and distribution of these substances are illegal under federal law. Penalties for criminal drug offenses can include fines, imprisonment, and other life-altering consequences.

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Seeking Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Although once thought to be due to a person’s moral weakness, heroin addiction is now considered by most health experts to be a chronic brain disease. As such, it can and has been treated using medical interventions designed to address addiction from a holistic perspective. These include individualized inpatient and outpatient programs, clinically proven therapies, medication-assisted treatment, and aftercare planning.

Contact Guardian Recovery today to speak to a skilled Treatment Advisor and learn more about our therapeutic recovery services and full continuum of care. In addition, we offer free, no-obligation health insurance benefits checks and a streamlined admission process designed to help you get started on your journey to a healthier, drug-free life.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

(1)https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/drug-scheduling (2)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704563/ (3)https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl (4)https://www.goodrx.com/classes/opioids/opiates-vs-opioids (5)https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551554/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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