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Heroin Facts and FAQ

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Heroin is one of the leading forces driving the opioid epidemic in the United States. That’s because it’s widely accessible, cheaper than prescription opiates, and highly addictive. Unfortunately, an addiction to heroin can be fatal. If you have questions about heroin, we have the answers.

Heroin Facts and FAQ

Heroin is an opioid derived from morphine. It is illegal and listed as a Schedule I drug in the United States. That means it has a high potential for abuse and doesn’t have any accepted medical uses.

Heroin can be sold in various ways, including as white or brownish powders. Pure heroin is white, but black tar heroin resembles sticky tar or hardened coal. This dark color comes from different processing methods for black tar heroin than for pure heroin.

Heroin is derived from morphine. Morphine is a naturally occurring substance that comes from the seed pods of various poppy plants. These poppy plants exist around the world, but most heroin comes from:

  • Asia
  • Mexico
  • South America

Heroin was first synthesized from morphine in 1874. The Bayer Pharmaceutical Company, one of the largest drug companies in the world, began manufacturing it commercially in 1898.

Bayer marketed heroin as a cough suppressant. At first, physicians didn’t recognize the potential for heroin misuse, so some prescribed it to their patients. But by 1924, all heroin use became illegal under federal law.

Heroin is considered semi-synthetic. That means morphine itself is a natural substance. But people often mix morphine with various chemicals to produce heroin.

Most drugs have street names, and people use the slang to avoid drawing attention to manufacturing, selling, or using heroin. The names usually depend on who’s using them and where they live.

Common street names include:

  • H/Big H
  • Black/Black Tar/Black Pearl
  • Smack
  • Dope
  • China White/White Stuff/White Lady/White Girl/White Boy
  • Brown/Brown Sugar/Brown Tape
  • Snow
  • Chiva/Chiba
  • Dragon
  • Scag
  • Mexican Mud

Some people smoke heroin by heating it on a surface foil and inhaling the smoke. Others snort it directly. Some people dissolve it in water and inject it intravenously (into their veins). This is often known as “shooting.”

Injection is considered the most dangerous form of heroin use. This method releases the entire heroin dose to the brain directly. It’s the method that causes the most overdoses.

Heroin is considered harmful and life-threatening for many reasons. The longer someone uses heroin, the more likely they are to experience negative effects.


All opioids can be habit-forming. They bind and activate the body’s opioid receptors. This process blocks pain while also releasing dopamine. The dopamine feels like a surge of pleasure, which makes the whole experience addictive for most people. They find themselves chasing the high and doing what they can to acquire more heroin.

Risk of Overdose

People can’t tell how pure heroin is when buying it off the street because dealers often it with other substances or narcotics. Today, many dealers cut heroin with fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, which can be 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Because users can’t calculate what they’re taking, the risk for overdose increases.

Many people who use heroin mix it with other substances—like cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol, or benzodiazepines—to enhance their high or combat withdrawal symptoms. Mixing substances increases the risk of a heroin overdose.

Physical Health Risks

Heroin is associated with numerous health risks. These include:

  • Lung complications
  • Abscesses
  • Infections in the heart lining and valves
  • Collapsed veins
  • Hepatitis C
  • Cognitive imbalances

Most heroin is sold in a powder form, and it’s usually white, brown, or black. The color depends on the heroin purity and other mixed substances.

Most heroin is bitter, but different mixtures can produce different tastes. For example, heroin cut with sugar can taste sweet.

Heroin can be completely odorless. But when mixed with other substances, it can smell like various chemicals, cat urine, or even chocolate. Smoked heroin can smell sweet—like sugar, licorice, or coffee—but it can also smell like burnt food.

Heroin is a powerful sedative, which means people who use it feel relaxed, calm, and even euphoric. People who take heroin intravenously typically feel a rush of pleasure. This feeling transitions into a sense of comfort and warmth. Users often describe feeling disconnected, as if they’re in a trance.

When someone builds a tolerance to heroin, they need to take it in greater amounts to feel high. They also experience heroin withdrawals once the drug leaves their system. As a result, heroin use often becomes a vicious cycle to avoid the physical and emotional discomfort of withdrawal.

Heroin has a rapid half-life of just two to six minutes. A half-life refers to how long it takes for the amount of heroin in your body to decrease by one half. Heroin stays in the blood for up to six hours and in urine for up to three days. It can be detected in a hair follicle test for up to 90 days after the last use.

Substance use disorders are complex. It’s not uncommon to see drug problems in generation after generation of the same family. Some people may be genetically predisposed to experience stronger reactions to addictive substances, but research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors combine to influence whether someone will become addicted to a drug like heroin.

Knowing heroin facts means you can better identify it if you suspect a loved one is using it and know how to handle the situation if they are. If you or someone you know is suffering with an addiction to heroin, contact Footprints to Recovery. Our compassionate, experienced team can help you take back control over your life.

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David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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