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Heroin is a substance in the opioid class. (Other opioids include morphine, codeine, pethidine, buprenorphine, and methadone.) Heroin is made from the sap of the opium poppy. It is highly addictive and people who use it can become dependent and experience cravings. Initial effects include feelings of well-being and relief from physical pain.
One of the adverse effects of using heroin is the risk of overdose. Longer-term use can cause significant health and lifestyle problems.
Dealers usually mix or ‘cut’ heroin with other substances such as sugar, paracetamol, or caffeine– to boost their profits. This means that the person using heroin has no idea if the dose will be strong or weak.
Heroin generally takes the form of granules or powder and can range in color from white to brown. Users generally inject it intravenously (into a vein), but they can also snort or smoke it. Common slang terms for heroin include ‘smack’, ‘horse’, and ‘hammer’.
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Heroin is a central nervous system depressant. This means it slows down a person’s brain function and affects their breathing (which can slow down or even stop). The person’s body temperature and blood pressure drop, and their heartbeat can become irregular. The person may lose consciousness or lapse into a coma. Ambulance officers, family, and friends can give the medication naloxone to reverse the effects of heroin. In February 2016, naloxone was rescheduled to be made available for purchase over the counter. Talk with your pharmacist for more information.
Effects of heroin
The effects of heroin depend on:
- the strength of the dose
- the size, weight, general health, and state of mind of the person taking the heroin
- the effects of other drugs and medication that they might have taken at the same time (or even in the last two days).
If the person has taken other depressants such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, methadone, or alcohol, the effects of heroin are increased. This can result in a coma or even death.
Some of the immediate effects of taking heroin include:
- a rush of pleasurable feelings and relief from physical pain
- feeling sick or vomiting
- shallow breathing, drowsiness, and sleepiness
- a drop in body temperature
- narrowing of the pupils
- loss of sex drive.
Symptoms of a heroin overdose
One of the most dangerous adverse effects of heroin use is the risk of overdose. The symptoms of overdose include:
- dangerously low body temperature
- slowed breathing
- blue lips and fingernails
- cold, clammy skin
- convulsions and coma.
What to do if you suspect an overdose
If someone who has taken drugs does not respond when you talk to them, is snoring loudly or making gurgling noises, they may be in a coma and having trouble breathing. Do not assume that they are just ‘sleeping off the effects. Their airway may be blocked by their tongue falling back or other blockages.
This is a medical emergency. If you can’t wake them, dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance immediately.
Naloxone is a drug that can temporarily reverse a heroin overdose. It works by blocking opioid drugs from attaching to opioid receptors in the brain.