WHAT IS HEROIN, FENTANYL, AND OPIOID ADDICTION?
In late 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a grim milestone: For the first time in the country’s history, annual drug overdose deaths in the U.S. topped 100,000 during 12 months.
Nearly two-thirds of those overdoses were caused by opioids, a large, highly addictive, and dangerous family of drugs. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller, was responsible for many of the lethal opioid overdoses.
Globally, opioids have long cast a sad, dark shadow across society and culture. The drugs have inspired books, films, and records … and have claimed the lives of artists, musicians, and actors. Opioids include many prescription pain relievers, illicit street drugs, and synthetic medications.
Opioids such as heroin and fentanyl aren’t immediately addictive, but it doesn’t take long to build up a tolerance to the drugs. Whether it’s someone who experiments with heroin or another person whose dependence on pain pills drove them to the street drug, both walk the same dangerous path to addiction.
Much of that has to do with the way these drugs work in the body.
How Do Heroin & Fentanyl Work?
Our nerve cells contain structures called opioid receptors. When someone uses heroin or fentanyl, the drug attaches to these receptors, which in turn causes a series of chemical messages to be sent to the brain.
These signals do two things: first, they block the body’s pain receptors, which is why opioids are often used to treat severe pain. Secondly, they cause the receptors to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which the body uses in its reward system.
Usually, our bodies release dopamine a drip at a time. Heroin and fentanyl cause the body to be flooded with dopamine, creating the intensely pleasurable high associated with their use. Unfortunately, it’s easy to build up a tolerance to the effects of these drugs – the high begins to fade with regular use, so users must take more and more of the drug to feel the same rush.
With repeated use, heroin and fentanyl rewire the brain to believe it needs the drug to function properly. When someone stops using heroin, they experience withdrawal. Withdrawal is like the flu, only worse: it features intense aches and pains, sweating, nausea, and digestive problems.
Where Do Heroin & Fentanyl Come From?
Heroin is refined from morphine, a pain-relieving (and addictive) substance made from the sap of the poppy flower. Today, most heroin poppies are grown in Asia and Central and South America.
Originally intended as a cough suppressant for diseases like tuberculosis, heroin was first created around the turn of the 20th century. Available in powder form or as a sticky, resinous form called black tar, heroin can be sniffed, smoked, or injected.
Fentanyl is a different story. A synthetic drug chemically similar to morphine, the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) reports it’s vastly more potent than morphine. Intended for patients dealing with severe pain, most fentanyl available on the street is produced in clandestine labs.
Fentanyl abuse is dangerous enough on its own – the drug’s potency makes it especially easy to overdose on. Worse, though, is fentanyl’s presence in other street drugs like cocaine and counterfeit pills. A person can easily take a fatal dose of fentanyl without even intending to.
Why Are Heroin & Fentanyl So Dangerous?
Opioid drugs such as heroin and fentanyl are dangerous because, in large amounts, they can drastically slow down breathing, leading to suffocation. The CDC warns the symptoms of overdose include:
In response to the increasing number of opioid overdoses, many jurisdictions in the US have made naloxone more widely available. A medication that can quickly reverse overdoses via nasal spray or injection, naloxone is carried by first responders and is often available over the counter despite being a prescription drug.
Naloxone has saved many lives … but it’s also a stark reminder of the ongoing overdose epidemic.
Treating Heroin & Fentanyl Addiction
Many people with heroin and fentanyl use disorders can be reluctant to enter treatment due to the withdrawal symptoms discussed earlier. Fortunately, many rehab providers don’t rely on a “cold turkey” approach where users stop using at once. Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) uses medications to slowly taper off opioid use, helping recovering people deal with the cravings and withdrawal symptoms as opioids leave their system.
Rehab also teaches new ways of looking at the world, developing mental and physical strategies which teach them they don’t need drugs like heroin and fentanyl to experience life and feel self-worth. Ultimately, rehab is the gateway to making a different, positive mark on society.
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