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Heroin is a dangerous opioid drug that is involved in about one-third of opioid overdose deaths. Because heroin is an addictive, deadly and illegal substance, it’s common for people to wonder about what heroin looks like and how to recognize it. This is especially true for those who suspect a friend or loved one may be struggling with heroin use.
Although there is technically only one type of heroin, there are many different ways that heroin may appear or be used. The appearance of heroin will depend significantly on how it is made and whether it has been combined with other substances. Further, it can be difficult to tell whether a substance is heroin just by looking at it. Testing is typically necessary to know for certain whether a substance is heroin or something else.
Pure heroin is a white powder. This white, powdered form is the most classic appearance of heroin and is more refined than other forms of the drug. White heroin is often cut (combined) with other substances, such as sugar or powdered milk. By diluting heroin with additives, dealers increase the amount of product that they can sell. White heroin can also be cut with other drugs to create a unique blend that makes people buy it from a particular dealer.
White heroin will typically look like a white powder. Depending on the chemicals used to process it or substances used to dilute it, white heroin may also have a pink, yellow, brown, beige or off-white tint.
Black tar heroin is a form of heroin that is not as thoroughly refined as white heroin, making it cheaper but less potent. Black tar heroin is not a powder but rather a sticky, tar-like substance. The dark color and consistency of this form is due to impurities in the heroin.
As its name suggests, black tar heroin typically has a black appearance and a thick, sticky consistency like tar. However, black tar heroin can also be solid and look like a chunk of coal. Black tar heroin can also have an orange or brown appearance.
Brown heroin is a form of heroin that has not gone through the full process of purification; instead, it is still at an earlier step in the process. Brown heroin is less potent than white heroin and may be smoked instead of injected because it is harder to dissolve in water than whiter heroin.
Brown heroin is a brown powder. It will have a more true brown color instead of the brownish tint that appears in some forms of white heroin. The brown color is due to impurities in the heroin.
Heroin may be put into pill form so that it can be ingested. Unlike medications, which are tightly regulated, illegal drugs like heroin can be put into any form or color of pill. It will usually be impossible to tell if a pill is heroin just by looking at it, but it may be possible to tell if a pill is a medication or not.
Heroin pills will normally not have the extra coloring that is added to some medications. They will also usually lack the identifying marks that prescription medications are required to have. Heroin pills may consist of capsules containing a white, brown or black substance. They may also be tablets that are white, off-white or brown.
Synthetic heroin is heroin that is made in a laboratory instead of being purified from an opium poppy plant. Synthetic heroin can vary in appearance based on the processes used to make it, how pure it is and what it is cut with.
Synthetic heroin can have many different appearances, but it usually looks like a white powder. This white powder can also have a brown, beige or off-white tint and may be in pill form.
When learning how to recognize if someone is using heroin, it is important to understand the different ways that heroin is used. Most people know that heroin is something that people can inject into their veins, but some types of heroin cannot be easily injected and must be used in other ways.
Heroin can be smoked, especially when it is brown or black tar heroin that does not dissolve easily in water. When smoked, heroin can be made into cigarettes or melted on top of a piece of foil. With the foil method, the fumes are inhaled through a straw as the heroin melts. Smoked heroin is absorbed by the membranes in the lungs and quickly enters the bloodstream.
Forms of heroin that do not easily dissolve in water, such as brown or black tar heroin, may be snorted instead. When snorted, heroin is used in powdered form. Black tar heroin may be frozen then ground to a powder to use for snorting. The powder is arranged into lines, and a straw or roll of paper is used to inhale each line. When snorted, heroin absorbs across the nasal membranes and quickly enters the bloodstream.
The most common but dangerous method of using heroin is to inject it directly into a vein. This leads to the quickest, most intense high, but it also increases the risk of overdose and other complications of drug use. To shoot heroin, a person will use a cooker or spoon to heat the drug and turn it into a liquid. The liquid will then be drawn up into a syringe through a filter. A tourniquet may be used to make the veins easier to find, and the heroin is injected into a vein.
Heroin may sometimes be used in pill form, and heroin in this form is swallowed. The pill may take longer to reach the bloodstream than other methods, as it must dissolve and be absorbed into the bloodstream by the intestines. When being absorbed by the intestines, heroin will be filtered through the liver before entering the bloodstream, reducing the amount of active heroin that reaches circulation.
As with most drugs, there are quite a few slang terms that might be used to refer to heroin. Sometimes, these street names can stem from the appearance of the heroin or its location of origin. Other street names for heroin may refer to the effects of the drug.
Common street names for heroin include:
It can be difficult to tell if someone is using heroin, but there are signs of heroin use that will normally be noticeable. Some of these are specific to heroin use, while others are more general signs that someone is developing some kind of addiction. Symptoms of heroin use can include:
Someone who is overdosing on heroin may have slowed or stopped breathing and be unresponsive. If you are with someone who may have overdosed on heroin, you should immediately administer Narcan (naloxone) if available and then call 911.
General signs of an addiction may also be present. These include:
Heroin can be packaged in a variety of ways, and the means of packaging may vary depending on where the heroin comes from. Heroin can be packaged:
Heroin paraphernalia refers to the materials needed to use heroin. For injection, this could include needles, syringes, cotton filters, tourniquets and spoons with heat marks on the underside. For smoking, this could include materials for making cigarettes or aluminum foil with heat marks and a straw. For snorting, heroin paraphernalia could include something used to arrange heroin in lines, such as a razor blade or credit card. It can also include something used to inhale the heroin, like a straw or rolled-up dollar bill.
Track marks refer to the marks caused by injecting heroin. Repeated injection into the same vein creates scar tissue that makes the vein harder to inject into again. People will typically adjust for this by injecting into the same vein but slightly higher up. This results in lines of injection marks on the vein called track marks. Track marks almost always indicate IV drug use.
If you or someone you love is using heroin, professional help may be necessary. Heroin is highly addictive, increasing the risk of overdose and serious health problems. Professional heroin addiction treatment can help you or your loved one to recover from drug abuse and begin a healthier, heroin-free life.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is dedicated to helping Colorado residents find lasting recovery from drug abuse and addiction. Contact us today to learn more about heroin addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.
One of the cornerstones of addiction treatment in recent years is medication-assisted treatment. With MAT, we can help people with opioid addiction begin and maintain a long-term recovery.
Inpatient rehabilitation offers constant live-in care for people with substance use disorders. At an inpatient care facility, all evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation is supervised by medical professionals.
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Medical detoxification, more commonly known as medical detox, this process is crucial to successful recovery. When you’re dependent on a substance, your body has to compensate for the constant presence of that substance.
As an opioid addiction develops, that distort thinking and behavior. This can make it very difficult for someone to quit taking the opioid, even as they suffer negative consequences.
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The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.
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