The epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse has been going on for decades. As doctors overprescribed these highly addictive narcotics, millions of people succumbed to a dependence on them. Some did so by intentionally abusing the medications of others, while many people slowly slid into addiction while using painkillers because they genuinely needed them. Now, with tightening restrictions on these medications, many addicts are turning to heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to get. If someone you know is abusing painkillers you need to be aware of the possibility of heroin abuse and addiction.
Heroin and Legal Narcotics
Narcotic painkillers are related to heroin because they are all based on the substances naturally found in opium, the drug that comes from the opium poppy. Prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, oxymorphone and oxycodone work in the body and brain in a manner very similar to heroin. In fact, heroin was first created and developed as a medication. Only when doctors realized how addictive it was and how severe the side effects could be did it become illegal.
Both heroin and prescription painkillers activate receptors in the central nervous system that produce a flood of dopamine, the pleasure chemical. This produces the high that abusers experience and keep coming back for time and time again. After repeated use, the abuser needs more and more to get high and eventually becomes dependent on it, requiring the drug just to feel normal and stave off withdrawal.
The Transition to Heroin
The epidemic rise in abuse of painkillers was, in itself, a terrible public health crisis. From 1999 to 2010, the number of people overdosing and dying from abusing painkillers tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In reaction to the troubling trend, doctors and lawmakers made changes that made it more difficult for addicts to get access to prescriptions.
Drug dealers saw an opportunity and now heroin is cheaper and more available than ever before. Making the transition from prescriptions to heroin seems obvious to the addict who is desperate for that fix. The problem is that new users of heroin can easily have an accidental overdose. They also experience many more adverse side effects from using heroin.
Signs of Heroin Abuse
If you care about someone who abuses prescription painkillers, you should do everything you can to help her get clean. You also need to watch out for signs of heroin abuse. It is not always easy to tell when someone has made that transition, but keep a watchful eye and confront your loved one if you suspect she is now using heroin.
Look for the drug itself, and the paraphernalia. Heroin is usually a dry and powdery substance that can range from off-white to brown or black in color. Look for syringes or small pipes made of metal or glass. There are also obvious physical signs of heroin use, especially if the user is shooting up. Look for track marks on the arms or leg, or even on the feet and in between toes. Other physical signs of heroin use include a constantly running nose, numerous respiratory infections, weight loss, scabs from picking at the skin and warm, flushed skin. Also be on the lookout for significant changes in behavior or habits. These should always be cause for alarm when you see them in someone who abuses drugs.
The rising trend in heroin use is troubling both for individuals and for public health. While once restricted mostly to inner city neighborhoods, heroin is now everywhere, from big cities to rural areas and everywhere in between. Making the transition from abusing painkillers to getting hooked on heroin is not as uncommon as you may think. Be aware of what is going on around you and be ready to help a loved one in need.