What is Opioid Addiction


All opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Regular use – even as prescribed by a doctor – can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to addiction, overdose incidents and deaths. The progression from use to abuse of opioids leads people to move to cheaper and more accessible drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Those with a physical dependence need to continue use to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms, while others with a psychological dependence believe they need it to survive. Those who stop using heroin abruptly develop withdrawal symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The severity of the symptoms often lead the individual to seek out more substance to relieve the pain (Drugabuse.gov).

What is heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of the various opium poppy plants grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico and Columbia. Heroin can be a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Other common names for heroin include Big H, horse, hell dust and smack.

People inject sniff, snort or smoke heroin. Some people mix heroin with crack cocaine, a practice called speed-balling.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50-100 times more potent. It is a schedule II prescription drug and is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or as pain management after surgery. Fentanyl is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids. In its prescription form, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq1, Duragesic and Sublimaze. Street names for fentanyl or for fentanyl-laced heroin include Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, and Tango and Cash (Drugabuse.gov).

What are pain killers?

Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine are opioids that are often used as medicines because they contain chemicals that relax the body and can relieve pain. Prescription opioids are used mostly to treat moderate to severe pain, though some opioids can be used to treat coughing and diarrhea. Opioids can also make people feel very relaxed and “high” – which is why they are sometimes used for non-medical reasons. This can be dangerous because opioids can be highly addictive and overdoses and death are common.

Drug effects

Girl on opioids

Heroin and other opioids enter the brain rapidly and bind to the opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping and breathing.

Short-term effects

People who use heroin and other opioids report feeling a “rush” (a surge of pleasure or euphoria). However, there are other common effects, including:

  • Dry-mouth
  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sever itching
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Going “on the nod,” a back-and-forth state of being conscious and semiconscious

Long-term effects

People who use heroin over the long term may develop:

  • Insomnia
  • Collapsed veins for people who inject the drug
  • Damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
  • Constipation and stomach cramping
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia
  • Mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
  • Sexual dysfunction for men
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Withdrawal effects

Those who are addicted to heroin and stop using the drug abruptly may have severe withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms-which can begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken – include:

  • Restlessness
  • Severe muscle and bone pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Cold flashes with goose bumps
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Severe heroin cravings

Researchers are studying the long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain. Studies have shown some loss of the brain’s white matter associated with heroin use, which may affect decision-making, behavior control and responses to stressful situations.


A range of treatments including medicines and behavioral therapies are effective in helping people stop heroin use. It’s important to match the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of each individual patient.

If you or someone you know is in danger of addiction, there is help available. At Water Gap Wellness, we treat the root causes of addiction in a variety of settings. Our trained medical and clinical staff will guide you along the way to recovery.

About WGWC

Water Gap Wellness Center offers expert and compassionate treatment for mental health and substance abuse at our Pennsylvania facility, just outside New Jersey, a short drive from New York. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you today. 

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