What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use?
Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine and binds rapidly to opioid receptors.11 Abusers typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensation—a “rush.” The intensity of the rush is a function of how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors. With heroin, the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itching. After the initial effects, users usually will be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is also severely slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.12
Opioids Act on Many Places in the Brain and Nervous System
- Opioids can depress breathing by changing neurochemical activity in the brain stem, where automatic body functions such as breathing and heart rate are controlled.
- Opioids can increase feelings of pleasure by altering activity in the limbic system, which controls emotions.
- Opioids can block pain messages transmitted through the spinal cord from the body.
This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.