How heroin affects the body

Lauren Rathmell

With heroin abuse rampant in Ohio and nationwide, users are causing increasingly dangerous damage to their brain and nervous system.

Ruben Baler, a health scientist with the National Institution on Drug Abuse, said heroin in its purest form does not actually do anything to the body — it’s the morphine that causes the harmful side effects.

“Morphine is what the heroin is synthesized from. It’s the active compound in heroin,” Baler said. “The heroin turns into morphine once it hits the brain.”

The human body contains several opioid receptors, and when a user introduces heroin to his or her system, the “mu” opioid receptors are affected. These types of receptors are acted on when heroin interacts in the brain. The heroin turns into morphine, and then combines with the mu opioid receptors to become euphoria. Baler said that’s only the beginning.

The location of these receptors determines the effects heroin will have on the body. Receptors in the brain near the spinal cord regulate the general well-being of the human body. More specifically, pain and breathing. Baler said after the first few minutes of use, a user will most likely experience a sedative-like effect from the heroin.

“Morphine can give off a feeling of euphoria when the chemical binds to mu opiate receptors,” Baler said. “This happens in the center of the brain that we call the ‘reward center.’ Users feel a warm rush through their body. This is just a secondary reaction compared to the decrease in pain and difficulty breathing.”

While these are all acute — or short-term — effects, Baler said chronic use can cause these impairments to become imprinted on the brain and more difficult to reverse the longer the use continues.

“Just from one use, these functions are notably reduced,” Baler said. “So you can imagine how long-term use can affect them.”

Heroin is a drug that scientist classify as easily addictive. Baler said the drug has a way of interacting with opioid receptors, requiring the body to need more of the drug to get the same effect. This drives users to increase their doses and frequency of the dose.

In Ohio, many cases of heroin overdose are accompanied with a substance called fentanyl, a synthetic opioid introduced in the ‘90s. Fentanyl is much more powerful than heroin but is often laced in the drug, and it’s less responsive to narcan, a heroin antidote used by first responders to overdose victims.

“Fentanyl is a particularly powerful opiate,” Baler said. “It really has to be used with extreme care. Any misuse of powerful substances like this is extremely dangerous, and (it) is a huge problem with medications like this. People think that if it it can be prescribed by a doctor, it’s less dangerous. But that’s not the case.”

On the outside, continued heroin use can affect the physical characteristics of a user as well. The drug can be injected, snorted or smoked and each method poses its own risk.

“When injected, the user risks infection from the open entry point of the needle,” Baler said. “If the user snorts it, there have even been reports of holes in the nose in extreme cases. Damage to the mucosa, or membranes, can cause separation from the septum.”

Baler said all drugs are different, but there are common factors that link drugs like heroin to methamphetamine and cocaine.

“The mental impact of these drugs is similar,” Baler said. “Those long-term consequences are pretty comparable across the board.”

Lauren Rathmell is a features correspondent, contact her at [email protected].