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What Heroin Effects Feel Like

The Sensation of Getting High on Heroin

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Updated February 05, 2014

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What Heroin Effects Feel Like

The Eyes of a Person High on Heroin Have Distinctively Small Pupils

Image © Dustin Keast, Rusted Light® Photography

The Heroin High

The heroin high, technically termed heroin intoxication, is often the reason given by heroin users for taking such a dangerous drug. However, the pleasant effects of the heroin high are more important to people who do not feel good in the first place, and the brief respite that heroin provides from intense pain, depression and anxiety is often really why they choose to take the drug -- although the rebound effect worsens unpleasant feelings. Compared to other drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and meth, heroin is taken less for recreational and social reasons and more for self medication.

The heroin high creates changes to thoughts, feelings and sensations, some of which are caused by the effects of the drug itself on the brain and nervous system, and some of which depend on the personal history and expectations of the person taking the drug. For this reason, one person might find the effects of heroin to be awful, while another might feel relief and pleasure from the same effects.

Euphoria

Often when heroin users seek a high, they want to feel euphoria, a pleasurable sensation caused by changes in the brain. For people who rarely feel pleasure, either because they suffer from depression or anxiety, or because they live in unhappy circumstances, such as poverty, survival sex work, or the aftermath of an abusive childhood, a heroin high may be the only time they recall feeling pleasure. For people with more balanced lives, euphoria can happen in response to pleasurable day-to-day or special events.

Safe and Warm Feelings

People describe sensations of warmth and safety while they are high on heroin, even though in reality, they may be anything but safe and warm. This is why heroin can be so appealing to people living in unsafe surroundings, such as homeless people. On a cold night, sleeping on the streets, a hit of heroin can make it possible to relax and get some rest, yet the risks of developing hypothermia or pneumonia are still there.

On lower doses, people on heroin can feel calmer, less uptight and lonely, and more accepting of those around them. This can be appealing to sex workers, who can find it easier to go through with sexual contact with an unappealing stranger while under the influence of heroin. People living in deprived communities where criminal involvement is the norm can find it easier to get along with their peers when on heroin, which helps reduce the kind of anxiety that is natural to experience in these settings.

On higher doses, people can disconnect from those around them, feeling a kind of floating, dream-like state. Again, for someone with a high level of anxiety, depression, or alienation from the people and the world around them, this can be a great relief.

Pain Relief

The first few times heroin is used, it is very effective in reducing or eliminating physical and emotional pain. This can make it particularly appealing to people who have chronic pain, or those who engage in painful activities, such as sex work -- a woman who has intercourse with twenty different men in a night, some of whom may be physically abusive, will find this experience much less painful on heroin.

Unpleasant Effects of Heroin

Many people find heroin very unpleasant the first time they take it, and never take it again. The effects that heroin has on the nervous system can cause immediate vomiting, which, combined with the suppression of breathing and the cough reflex, increases the risk of choking. It also causes constipation. Heroin tends to reduce sex drive and the ability to have an orgasm, although on a physical level, it can increase sexual arousal, i.e., cause a man to have an erection or a woman to produce vaginal lubrication, again making sex work more manageable.

Heroin carries a high risk of overdose, and the risk does not decrease with experience, as tolerance develops quickly, and changes in body weight, the route of administration, periods of abstinence or reduced use, and even the familiarity of the place where the drug is taken affect how much the body can cope with. Fillers and even other drugs are mixed with what is sold as heroin. The amount of heroin in the drug purchased illegally is unpredictable, so it is impossible for heroin users to accurately predict whether the dose will be strong or weak. Some heroin users are willing to play Russian Roulette with their heroin, because they feel so powerless and unhappy that the risk of death is not as concerning to them as it is to people who are living in more manageable circumstances.

A heroin overdose can be reversed if treated quickly. Call 911 if you think you or someone else has overdosed on heroin, and ask for an ambulance. Stay awake, and tell the paramedic that heroin has been taken.

Heroin Addiction

From a physical perspective, heroin is moderately addictive. But for people with long-standing emotional problems, a history of trauma, chronic pain, and a disadvantaged lifestyle, the risk of addiction is very high. If you are experiencing peer pressure to try heroin, you would be wiser to avoid even trying heroin, and instead, to reach out for support through community agencies, and to look for opportunities to move somewhere else, to get therapy to help with your problems, and to build a better life for yourself.

Harm Reduction

The harms associated with heroin use are potentially deadly. If you inject heroin, find a needle exchange and use clean works every time. Do not share needles, even if you feel you know the other person well. Always use a condom when you have sex.

There is a lot of help available to people who use heroin, and treatments exist and others are being developed that lessen the distress of heroin addiction and heroin withdrawal. Talk to your doctor to find out what is available to you.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR Fourth Edition (Text Revision). American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Denning, P., Little, J., and Glickman, A. Over the Influence New York: Guilford. 2004.

Hser, Y., Evans, E., Huang, D., Brecht, M. and Li, L. "Comparing the dynamic course of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine use over 10 years." Addict Behav 33:1581-1598. 2008.

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