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What you should know
The same poppy plant that blooms with the fragrant red flowers often depicted in beautiful paintings, as well as produces poppy seeds to top breads and bagels, also makes the substances in heroin, one of the world's most highly addictive opiate drugs.
Heroin is derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance that can be extracted from the seedpods of some varieties of poppy plants.
Heroin goes by the chemical name diacetylmorphine, and it's the fastest-acting of the opiate drugs. Whether it's injected, smoked or snorted, heroin enters the brain quickly and can cause a range of physical and psychological effects.
"The United States is currently in the midst of a heroin epidemic," said Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, who has done research on heroin and is a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. The country has experienced heroin epidemics before, but in this latest one, a large set of heroin users are people who have previously abused prescription opioids, he said.
These new users are getting hooked on heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
But new users bring old problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013. In fact, heroin claimed the lives of more than 8,200 Americans in 2013.
Here are 10 interesting facts about this dangerous illegal drug. Reading them may give people good reason to avoid trying heroin in the first place.
Being "on the nod" is a dangerous stateSlide 2 of 21
Being "on the nod" is a dangerous state
When heroin first enters the brain, users will feel a sense of euphoria, or rush. But this high is followed by a period when users experience a state that alternates between drowsiness and wakefulness for several hours. It is referred to as being "on the nod."
"On the nod" is not a medical term, Ciccarone said. He compared it to a college student in a boring lecture who has his head down but is trying to stay awake — his head will nod and drop lower as he gets sleepier, and then his head will eventually jerk awake.
This nodding occurs because heroin is a sedative, and it can cause a person to go from feeling awake but sleepy into such a deep sleep that he or she cannot be shaken awake. This can seem like a desirable state for a heroin user, but it can be the first step on the road toward excess sedation, Ciccarone said.
"Being on the nod is the first baby step on a slippery slope toward overdosing," he said. [The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today’s Parents]
The nod can be especially dangerous if a person is sedated to the point where he or she loses consciousness. People can slip into a comatose state, and sink into overdose, where breathing becomes severely slowed and sometimes stops, Ciccarone said.Slide 3 of 21
Severe itching is a side effect of heroin useSlide 4 of 21
Severe itching is a side effect of heroin use
When heroin enters the brain, it converts into morphine, which binds to opioid receptors in the brain and in the body. This produces a surge of euphoria, or rush, and a warm flushing of the skin.
But an unexpected side effect of heroin use is severe itchiness. Opiate drugs can cause histamines — the compounds the body produces during allergic reactions — to be released, and histamines irritate the skin, Ciccarone said. Heroin and other opiates can make people's skin crawl and itch, and they may want to scratch their skin for relief.
A lot of users think something is wrong with their heroin when their skin gets itchy, but it usually means the drug is strong and not contaminated, Ciccarone told Live Science.Slide 5 of 21
Products containing heroin were once sold over the counterSlide 6 of 21
Products containing heroin were once sold over the counter
Although it was first made from morphine in 1874, heroin was introduced for medical use in 1898 by The Bayer Company of Germany. Three years earlier, a chemist at Bayer was attempting to create a safer pain reliever that could be a substitute for morphine — one that was less addictive and also had fewer side effects. He accidentally synthesized diacetylmorphine, which he thought was a more dilute form of morphine, and he coined the term "heroin" for it, supposedly for its heroic qualities as a strong medicine.
In the early 1900s, products containing heroin, such as cough syrups and remedies for infant colic, were marketed and sold over the counter in the United States and other countries. Doctors also reported that people who used these products seemed to sleep better.
But within a few years, heroin was found to be two to three times more potent than morphine, and more rapidly absorbed by the brain. Physicians also quickly realized that heroin was even more addictive than morphine.Slide 7 of 21
"Heroin chic" was a '90s fashion movementSlide 8 of 21