Heroin: withdrawal and treatment

What is heroin?

Heroin is made from the opium poppy.

It is one of a group of drugs known as “opioids”. Other opioids include opium, morphine, codeine, pethidine, oxycodone, buprenorphine and methadone. Heroin is made from the opium poppy.

Heroin and other opioids are depressant drugs. Depressant drugs do not necessarily make you feel depressed. Rather, they slow down the activity of the central nervous system and messages going between the brain and the body.

Alcohol, benzodiazepines, GHB and cannabis are also depressant drugs.

Other names

Heroin is also known as "smack", "skag", "dope", "H", "junk", "hammer", "slow", "gear", "harry", "big harry", "horse", "black tar", "china white", "Chinese H", "white dynamite", "dragon", "elephant", "homebake" or "poison".

What does it look like?

Heroin can range from a fine white powder to off-white granules or pieces of brown "rock". It has a bitter taste but no smell, and is generally packaged in "foils" (aluminium foil) or small, coloured balloons.

How is it used?

Heroin is most commonly injected into a vein. It is also smoked ("chasing the dragon") or added to cannabis or tobacco cigarettes, or snorted.

Withdrawal

If a dependent person stops taking heroin, or severely cuts down the amount they use, they will experience withdrawal symptoms because their body has to get used to functioning without heroin.

Symptoms can start within 6 to 24 hours after the last dose. Heroin withdrawal symptoms usually peak within 1 to 3 days and gradually subside in 5 to 7 days.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms that may be experienced include:

  • cravings for heroin
  • restlessness
  • yawning
  • increased irritability
  • depression
  • crying
  • diarrhoea
  • low blood pressure
  • stomach and leg cramps, muscle spasms
  • vomiting
  • goose bumps
  • runny nose
  • insomnia
  • loss of appetite
  • elevated heart rate.

Getting help

Treatment

In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help people to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to drug use.

Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone's heroin use

If you are concerned about someone's drug use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if a heroin overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while using heroin, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

For more information, please click on the Australian Drug Foundation's DrugInfo Clearinghouse web site link below.

Heroin in pregnancy

Most drugs that a mother takes will cross the placenta and affect her foetus, or will be present in her breast milk.

Using heroin while pregnant can increase the chances of problems in pregnancy such as miscarriage, or going into labour early, which can mean that babies are born below birth weight.

Heroin is often "cut" with other substances that can also cause problems during pregnancy and affect the developing foetus.

Read more about the effects of taking heroin during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Check with your doctor or other health professional if you are using or planning to use heroin or any other drugs during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. For more information, please click on the Australian Drug Foundation's DrugInfo Clearinghouse web site link below.

Last Reviewed: 4 February 2011
Reproduced with kind permission from the Australian Drug Foundation.

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References

Australian Drug Foundation. Heroin facts. Last updated 4 February 2011. http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/drug-facts/heroin (accessed Jan 2013).
Australian Drug Foundation (ADF)

Australian Drug Foundation (ADF)

Vision: Healthy People, Strong Communities. Mission: Working together to prevent alcohol and other drug problems in communities.