From Prescription Drugs to Heroin, How People Become Addicted to Opiates, Health Dangers and Treatment

Opiates, sometimes referred to as narcotics, are a group of drugs which are used medically to relieve pain, but also have a high potential for abuse. Some opiates come from a resin taken from the seed pod of the Asian poppy. This group of drugs includes opium, morphine, heroin, and codeine. Other opiates, such asmeperidine (Demerol), are synthesized or manufactured. Opium appears as dark brown chunks or as a powder and is usually smoked or eaten. Heroin can be a white or brownish powder which is usually dissolved in water and then injected. Most street preparations of heroin are diluted, or “cut,” with other substances such as sugar or quinine. Other opiates come in a variety of forms including capsules, tablets, syrups, solutions, and suppositories. Heroin (also called “junk”or “smack”) accounts for 90 percent of the opiate abuse in the United States. Sometimes opiates with legal medicinal uses also are abused. They include morphine, meperidine, paregoric (which contains opium), and cough syrups that contain codeine [or a synthetic narcotic, such as dextromethorphan]. Whatever the drug use or name, you may need an opiate detox to get free from addiction.

Opiate addiction is recognized as a central nervous system disorder, caused by continuous opiate intake. After prolonged opiate use, the nerve cells in the brain, which would otherwise produce endogenous opiates (natural painkillers, or endorphins), cease to function normally. The body stops producing endorphins because it is receiving opiates instead. The degeneration of nerve cells causes a physical dependency to an external supply of opiates.

After repeatedly using heroin overtime, the long-term effects of the substance begin to appear in the user. Chronic users may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver disease. Additionally, users may also experience pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia.  It is almost impossible to break the addiction without an opiate detox.

Regular opiate use creates tolerance, which requires the abuser to use more heroin to achieve the same intensity or effect that they are seeking. As higher doses of the drug are used over time, physical dependence and addiction to the drug develop. By some estimates, some 750,000 to 1 million Americans are addicted to heroin. A recent report estimates that 30 million people have used prescription pain relievers like OxyContin and Vicodin for non-medical reasons. In addition to the effects of the drug itself, users who inject heroin also put themselves at risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis C (HCV), and other infectious diseases. Approximately 70–80% of the new HCV infections in the U.S. each year are among injection drug users.

Studies have shown that Buprenorphine is a safe and effective medication for people who are addicted to heroin, vicodin, codeine or other opiate drugs. Buprenorphine is an opioid partial agonist. This means that, although buprenorphine is an opioid, and thus can produce typical opioid agonist effects and side effects such as euphoria and respiratory depression, its maximal effects are less than those of full agonists like heroin and methadone. In fact, buprenorphine carries a lower risk of abuse, addiction, and side effects compared to full opioid agonists.

While most narcotics are grouped together, detoxification from each one requires specialization. The staff at First Step® has worked with patients who have used a variety of opioids and combinations of opiates. Physicians specializing in addictions consult with each patient prior to admission at First Step® to ensure the best care and an individualized opiate detox for him or her.