Ask the Docs: About Heroin

Ask the Docs: About Heroin

What exactly is heroin? And how is it different from legal drugs? Students asked, and doctors answered these questions and more during NIDA’s “Chat Day.” Check out more questions and answers below.image of heroin


Question: Knguyen, Sugar Land Middle, asked:

What does heroin do to your brain?

Dr. Wilson Compton answered:

Heroin is an opioid and so has nearly the same effects in the brain as morphine, oxycodone, and many of the prescription painkillers. Like other opioids, it causes sedation, respiratory depression, pain relief and intoxication. For info about heroin:


Question: Idk, Blanco Middle School, asked:

What is in heroin?


Dr. Michele Rankin answered:

Heroin is a highly addictive drug made from morphine, a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance that is extracted from the resin of the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Heroin’s color and look depend on how it is made and what else it may be mixed with. It can be white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance called “black tar heroin.” Heroin is part of a class of drugs called opioids.


Question: Kendall9001, Rivet Middle High School, asked:

If someone were to go into labor (and be at a hospital) and they found traces of heroin how would they handle the situation? Furthermore, if she was high while in labor what would the doctors do?


Dr. Michelle Leff answered:

Dear Kendall9001, Thanks for asking this question. Usually doctors assess the situation, and since labor (delivery of the baby) is the highest priority, the doctors FIRST would do everything they could to ensure the safe delivery of the baby and safety of the mother. I would hope that the medical system would develop a good plan for the baby and the mother. For example, the baby might be withdrawing from heroin (as the mother would) - and supportive care would be necessary for the baby and the mother. Before discharge, planning for drug treatment for the mother would be very important, too.


Question: LaurenB, Bellefonte Area Middle School, asked:teen boy sitting on bathroom floor in front of toilet seat with heroin drug paraphernalia

Can heroin lead to other addictions?


Dr. Nora Volkow answered:

When a heroin addict cannot get heroin, they may turn to other drugs and become addicted to them.


Question: sshelander, Sugar Land Middle School, asked:

What is the difference between RX drugs and street drugs?


Dr. Dave Thomas answered:

Hi there! I think you are talking about prescription opioids versus street opioids, like heroin. They are actually chemically very similar and both can be dangerous. With prescription opioids, one typically knows exactly the chemical in the pill, whereas with "street" drugs one does not know exactly what one is getting. But both are dangerous depending on how they are used. Some more info:


Question: notMethHead, Abington Friends School, asked:

Why do people not get addicted to morphine when leaving the hospital? Why is heroin considered soooo much worse?


Dr. Dave Thomas answered:

Good question! After surgery people typically leave a hospital with a lot of opioids, in case they have pain. They typically get more pills than they really need. Sometimes they take too much and this can lead to issues with dependence and abuse. As for heroin being considered "sooo" much worse that than morphine … they really are about the same.


Question: hlandingham, Los Molinos High School, asked:

I’ve heard that some drug addiction rehab facilities actually get you addicted to morphine in order stop your other addictions. Is this true? And if so, can/how does this help if morphine is so harmful/addictive?


Dr. Geetha Subramaniam answered:

Hi hlandingham. No, substance abuse treatment facilities do not use morphine. Morphine is used in hospitals to treat pain following surgery or trauma, and as you know, it can be highly addictive. Maybe you are thinking about methadone or buprenorphine. Treatment facilities do use these two medications to reduce patients' cravings for heroin or prescription opioids, so that the patients can avoid relapse and rebuild their lives. Although they are chemically related to morphine, they are very different in their effects and uses. Here's some information on using medications to treat addiction:


Question: kcarra, Bellefonte Area Middle School, asked:

The heroin epidemic seems to be out of control. What would be your recommendation to try to regain control and save lives?


Dr. Dave Thomas answered:

Yes, it is getting really bad! And there is a prescription opioid epidemic. We need to do a lot of things including getting more treatment for people with addictions, and only use opioids in the treatment of pain when they will likely be effective and only prescribing the amount that is needed. We've been working with many other folks trying to get a handle on this.


Check out the full “Chat Day” transcript on the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website.