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Heroin belongs to a group of drugs called opiates.

They are all very strong pain killers and highly addictive. Examples are opium. morphine and codeine, heroin, pethidine and methadone. Heroin is manufactured from the natural opium chemicals - morphine and codeine.

Opium and its derivatives have been used for several thousand years by people in many different cultures. The opium poppy is grown in many parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, the USA and Australia.

Recent surveys estimate that 5% of teenagers (14-19 years) have been offered heroin and about 1% have tried the drug: 11% of people in their 30’s have been offered heroin and 5% have tried it; and only 2% of people over 40 have been offered heroin and less than 1% have tried it.

The effects of heroin on an individual depend on their body type, mood and experience with the drug, as well as the amount used and the way in which it is taken. Immediate effects of the drug include the relief of pain, a feeling of well being, nausea and vomiting, shallow breathing, constipation and a narrowing of the pupils of the eyes.

At first, heroin briefly acts on the brain so that the user feels a stimulating rush, then the drug depresses the central nervous system, so that they feel hardly any pain, hunger or sexual urges. With higher dosages the person feels warm, drowsy and dry mouthed, with depressed breathing. It is dangerous to drive while affected by heroin.

The major health problem of short term use comes from the way it is used. Injection of heroin can lead to skin, heart and lung infections and diseases like hepatitis. The commonly used practice of sharing needles also poses a great risk of developing HIV/AIDS. The number of IV users in Australia who are known to carry the virus has multiplied by ten during the last 12 months, and needle sharing is likely to continue to promote its rapid spread.

Other problems from using heroin occur because the user doesn’t know the strength of makeup of the drug. Street heroin is usually mixed with other substances like barbiturates, amphetamines, talcum powder to highly refined sugars. All of these substances can be dangerous to the user’s health.

Used hygienically and in a pure form, heroin is not toxic to the body, and does not appear to damage the body tissues or organs. But anyone who uses the drug for more than a few days is likely to become dependent on it or addicted to it. This means that the drug becomes central to the person’s thoughts, emotions and activities, and it is very difficult to stop using the drug or even to cut down.

Long term users of illegal heroin are also likely to develop health problems, because of the impurities in the drugs they buy, or the way they are used. These include endocarditis, hepatitis, abscesses, tetanus, pneumonia, other chest and bronchial infections, collapsed veins, even brain damage. They may also experience loss of appetite and loss of sex drive.

The high cost of street heroin can mean that users spend less on housing and food. Loss of appetite and poor nutrition can lead to severe undernourishment, which in turn can lead to infertility, disruption of menstrual cycles and susceptibility to infections.

Pregnant women who use heroin often experience many health and social problems during pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, the foetus will become dependent on the drug and will suffer withdrawal symptoms after birth. Such babies are often underdeveloped and suffer from many infections.

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