A heroin habit brings its share of highs and lows, and those lows include diseases, infections, and other health complications that many users likely are not aware of when they start using.
Recreational use of heroin, an illegal opioid drug synthesized from morphine that is taken from the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant, appeals to users who want to suppress pain or feel an intense, pleasurable, immediate “rush” that happens when the street drug enters the brain and converts back to morphine. How strong this wave of intense sensations depends on how much of the drug is taken and how fast it enters the brain and attaches itself to the opioid receptors there.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, users may experience warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and heavy feelings in their arms and legs when the rush happens. Afterward, they may find themselves feeling sick, vomiting, and itching severely. Other effects that linger include clouded mental functioning, and slow breathing, and slow heart function, which are both life-threatening.
How heroin is taken is up to the person who is using it. It can be eaten, smoked, snorted, or injected, which is a popular way to take it. It is also a method that leads to infections and diseases.
Effects of chronic heroin use are addiction and overdose. The longer one uses, the more serious the medical consequences are. People who share injection equipment or fluids risk contracting diseases.
As VeryWell.com explains, heroin, the drug itself, does not increase users’ risks of contracting diseases or viruses. It is the activities and behaviors that lead to these consequences. Here are five medical conditions that can result from risky heroin use practices.
People who share needles or other equipment used to inject drugs and those who have unprotected sex are vulnerable to getting an HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection, which can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) if HIV is left untreated.
Government data show that in 2015, six percent (2,392) of the 39,513 diagnoses of HIV in the United States were attributed to intravenous drug users (IDUs) and another three percent (1,202) to male-to-male sexual contact and IDU. Of the 18,303 AIDS diagnoses in 2015, 10 percent (1,804) were attributed to IDU, and another four percent (761) were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact and IDU.
HIV.gov explains, “HIV is a virus spread through certain body fluids that attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, often called T cells. Over time, HIV can destroy so many of these cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. These special cells help the immune system fight off infections. Untreated, HIV reduces the number of CD4 cells (T cells) in the body. This damage to the immune system makes it harder and harder for the body to fight off infections and some other diseases.”
According to the website Avert.org, syringes either have a high or low “dead-space” area, a place where fluids, including blood, collect after an injection has occurred. It explains that while high dead-space syringes are popular because they are cheaper and more widely available, this type of syringe collects more fluid, which creates an environment that allows the HIV infection to survive. Low dead-space syringes, however, collect 1,000 times less fluid, which doesn’t allow the HIV infection to last long.
“The risk of HIV infection is reduced if someone uses a low dead-space syringe after an HIV-positive person. Unfortunately, access to low dead-space syringes is sparse,” the site says.
HIV can be controlled, but to date, there is no effective cure for it. Even with treatment, the human body can’t get rid of HIV completely, according to HIV.gov. “So once you get HIV, you have it for life,” it writes.
Endocarditis is an infection of the heart’s valves and inner lining, according to WebMD. The condition is usually caused by bacteria and happens when germs get inside of the bloodstream and settle inside the heart, particularly the valve. According to HeroinHelper.com, there are two types of endocarditis—acute infectious endocarditis and subacute infectious endocarditis, which it says is the most common form.
Heroin users are at a higher risk of getting endocarditis if they inject heroin using dirty needles or if they use the needles without cleaning the skin. Using contaminated needles means users may also inject bacteria or fungi into their bodies, which gets into the bloodstream.
Symptoms can appear quickly, or within a few days after infection sets in; in other cases, symptoms may develop more slowly. Some warning signs include blood in the urine, and flu-like conditions, including fever, chills, night sweats, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and weight loss, among other signs.
Endocarditis damages the heart and causes heart failure, an abscess in the heart, heart rhythm issues, and heart attack or stroke. The infection can spread to other organs, such as the lungs, brain, or kidneys. If not treated right away, it can be fatal.
Hepatitis B, C
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Viral hepatitis is caused by viruses that are labeled by several letters of the alphabet. The more common ones are hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis c (HCV). According to NIDA, about 800,000 to 1.4 million people are living with HBV in the United States; 2.7 million to 3.9 million people are living with HCV, it says. If this condition is left untreated, cirrhosis of the liver can occur. Hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, is also a possibility.
Sharing needles and injection paraphernalia make heroin users susceptible to being exposed to hepatitis. Engaging in these practices puts heroin users in contact with bodily fluids from infected people. According to NIDA, injection drug users (IDUs) are the highest-risk group for acquiring hepatitis C infection. According to data it cited, each IDU infection with hepatitis C is likely to infect 20 other people.
Yellowing of the eyes, abdominal pain, and dark-colored urine are signs of hepatitis B. According to the Mayo Clinic, hepatitis c can remain a “silent” infection for many years until the disease’s symptoms become noticeable. Those symptoms include bleeding or bruising easily, fatigue, poor appetite, itchy skin, weight loss, and many other symptoms.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all drug users be tested for hepatitis b and hepatitis c as part of a routine medical examination. There are medications for both chronic HBV and HCV infections. Medical monitoring is important for chronic patients because it detects whether the disease is progressing to liver damage or cancer, NIDA writes.
Pulmonary edema is when the lungs have too much fluid in them. When it occurs, numerous air sacs in the lungs began to fill in, decreasing lung capacity and making it hard to breathe. This condition should be treated immediately as it can be fatal. According to the Mayo Clinic, many drugs, including heroin, are known to cause noncardiogenic pulmonary edema, which is when excess fluid in the lungs isn’t caused by increased pressures in the heart.
“In this condition [noncardiogenic pulmonary edema], fluid may leak from the capillaries in your lungs’ air sacs because the capillaries themselves become more permeable or leaky, even without the buildup of back pressure from your heart,” the Mayo Clinic explains.
Heroin users who experience shortness of breath, especially one that comes on suddenly, should see a doctor. Other symptoms include trouble breathing, a bubbly, wheezing or gasping sound when you breathe, and a major drop in blood pressure that causes sweating, lightheadedness, or dizziness are among the symptoms of pulmonary edema.
Tetanus is a poisonous bacterial infection that seriously affects the nervous system. The bacteria’s spores are found in soil, dust, and animal feces. If those spores enter a deep flesh wound, they produce tetanospasmin, a potent toxin that causes painful muscle spasms and stiffness, which are tell-tale signs that one has the infection. A stiff jaw or “lockjaw” are also key marker of the infection. A person with tetanus can have difficulty with breathing, swallowing, and stiffness in the muscles of the neck and abdomen.
Tetanus cases are rare in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, intravenous heroin users are at risk of infection when they inject the drug into the skin or the muscle. This condition is seen among black tar heroin users. Symptoms include headaches, fever, sweating, high blood pressure, and a rapid heart rate. People with the condition may exhibit irritability and restlessness. Tetanus is not curable. Treatment for it involves managing symptoms until the effects of the tetanus toxin resolve, the Mayo Clinic says.