By now, painkiller abuse has reached its fingers into nearly every American home. From teenagers to senior citizens, no one is exempt from the grip of prescription drug addiction. More and more, however, people are turning to other resources to get their fix—namely, heroin. In fact, nearly 14% of those who abuse prescription painkillers find themselves hooked on heroin. That’s up 9% since 2004. So why the sudden shift?
One Foot on the Path to Drug Addiction: Prescription Opioids
Painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine and even codeine (found in cold medicine) belong to a group of drugs known as opioids. As the name suggests, they derive from opium. Used to treat heavy pain such as that after an operation or intense dental work, opioids are nonetheless extremely habit-forming. In fact, many patients show early signs of addiction without even knowing it.
In the case of opioid addiction, withdrawal symptoms mirror those of a cold or a flu—runny nose, cough, pain all over the body, nausea, vomiting, and so on. For most patients in convalescence, they assume they are ill and merely ride it out. However, those who understand the symptoms of withdrawal know that if they take more of the drug, their withdrawal symptoms will go away. This is how addiction begins.
After raiding the medicine cabinets at home and the homes of family members, lying to doctors about prescriptions enough times, and running out of money, those addicted to painkillers search in desperation for other solutions. In most cases, that solution appears to be heroin.
Plummeting Into Opioid Addiction: Heroin
Heroin also happens to be an opioid. In fact, right after its birth in the late nineteenth century, it was sold legally as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. Researchers forgot to explore the fact that heroin was rapidly converted into morphine in the body, making it even more addictive as it was essentially a quicker-acting form of morphine. The blunder was rectified in 1924, when US Congress banned its sale, importation or manufacture.
The effects of heroin are the same as the high from prescription drug abuse. From euphoria to sedation, it appears to be the dream drug. That is, until the after-effects set in.
Dangerous Results: Opioid Addiction
One of the most notable parts of opioid addiction is the desperation that comes with its use. As with all drugs, the comedown or crash following the high is devastating. It drives people to do desperate and unthinkable things. That is why the most unexpected person can turn to a life of crime and prostitution when drugs are involved. Eventually, everything equates to, “How can I get more drugs?” It tears families apart and swallows self-respect and integrity.
The health effects are equally as devastating, but often not enough to dissuade use. Side effects of opioid addiction include:
- Cardiac arrest
- Respiratory failure
- Collapsed veins due to frequent injections
- Infections of the blood vessels
- AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases due to sharing needles
- Severe tooth and gum decay
- Cold sweats
- Weakened immune system
- Muscular weakness and partial paralysis
- Memory loss
Heroin has long been used as a murder weapon or for suicide, due to its fatal effects on respiration. It is difficult to determine whether death from heroin is due to overdose, suicide or homicide, as in the cases of Janis Joplin and River Phoenix.