Prescription painkillers are one of the biggest new sources of addiction in the United States. Heroin continues to be one of the most addictive and harmful illicit drugs available.
Heroin and Prescription Opiate Painkillers: What’s the Difference?
About a half-million Americans are addicted to heroin, while over two millions are addicted to painkillers. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999. Both are dangerous, both are highly addictive, and both have the same substance as their base: opium.
With these substances sharing so much in common, it’s worth asking: What exactly is the difference between the two? What are the connections between prescription opiate use and illicit opiate use? Is there any real difference between these substances, which have similar ingredients, addiction problems, and fatality rates?
How are Prescription Opiates and Heroin Similar?
The shortest and simplest answer is that prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone are based on opium, just like heroin is.
Because both substances are opiates, they also have similar effects. On use, the opium attaches to your brain, nervous system, and several internal organs, eliminating any feelings of pain and bringing a happy, relaxed feeling. This pleasant feeling is what drives people to use opiates, and the reason doctors prescribe them to people dealing with diseases and conditions with chronic pain.
Both prescription opiates and heroin carry a high risk of addiction and a high risk of fatality by overdose. A dose of opiates can affect your breathing – as your body relaxes, so too do its essential functions. Taking too much can stop your breathing entirely. This is how people die from an overdose. These effects are common to both prescription opiates and street-obtained heroin.
Even without overdosing, extended use of opiates can have other undesirable side effects, such as constipation, restlessness and insomnia. Withdrawal symptoms for prescription opiates and heroin are basically identical and often include:
- Severe sweating (and accompanying dehydration)
- Abdominal cramping
- Muscle cramping and aching
So in short, the illicit heroin and the doctor-obtained opiate painkillers you can get have the same active substances, the same basic effects from use, similar side effects, and nearly identical withdrawal symptoms.
Given all that, you’d assume they’re basically the same, right? There’s no doubt they’re very similar, but they’re not exactly the same. Much of the difference is in the ways they’re used, and how much consideration is put into mitigating their risks.
How Are Prescription Opiates and Heroin Different?
The physical substances of oxycodone and heroin are extremely similar, right down to the molecular level. What sets them apart is largely circumstantial, but still important.
For starters, the substances are consumed differently. Heroin is most often used as an intravenous injection. This immediately makes it less safe, as factors like the cleanliness of the needle and the accuracy of the injection point come into play. Getting either of these things wrong can cause serious problems or promote the spread of diseases.
Prescription painkillers like OxyContin are frequently in pill form and taken orally, removing the requirement to use needles. This not only mitigates the risk involved in self-administered injection, but it also changes the type of “high” brought on by the drug.
A heroin injection takes people from 0 to 100 in just a few seconds. The full force of the drug hits almost immediately, and gets people to the “high” state they expect. Because of this, it is an overpowering effect. Your vision is altered, and your ability to function normally is impaired. You may find yourself unable to keep yourself awake, and your perception of things around you is altered.
Prescription opiates are designed to give you a more even release, rather than everything at once. OxyContin is an extended-release formula meant to give you relief over time, not overload your body immediately. Many people, after a few days of gauging the substance’s effect on them, can even drive cars and operate heavy machinery while taking prescription opiates.
This isn’t a recommendation, of course, and should be thoroughly discussed with a doctor, but it’s a possibility. That being said, if you exhibit signs of impairment while driving, you can legally be issued a DUI while on painkillers.
One of the biggest differences between street heroin and prescription opiates is the existence of regulation. When you get heroin off the street, you have no idea how the stuff is being cut, who’s doing it, and whether they could make a mistake. Nobody of any sort of repute oversees this operation, so you have no recourse if you end up with some sketchy stuff that’s even more dangerous than usual. One such instance of this happened in Cincinnati recently, with 174 people overdosing in just six days on a batch of heroin thought to be mixed with an elephant tranquilizer.
With prescription painkillers, you have the peace of mind in knowing that the production and distribution of the drugs are being handled by trained professionals who are overseen by medical boards and the FDA. A batch of heroin that’s poorly cut might still make it out onto the street. If prescription drugs aren’t created to exacting specifications, they’ll be disposed of before they hurt anybody.
The Links Between Heroin and Prescription Opiates
Percocet, Percodan, Tylox and OxyContin are all prescription drugs containing oxycodone as a primary ingredient. OxyContin can be found illicitly on the street, and it is so similar to heroin, it often goes by the street name “Hillbilly Heroin,” referencing its growing popularity in the Appalachian region of the United States.
But there’s a harsh truth about OxyContin and heroin. Both are addictive and achieve similar effects in the people who use them, but OxyContin is much safer and cleaner. The problem is that OxyContin is much, much more difficult to find on the street, and is far more expensive.
Many people who take prescription pain meds like OxyContin or Percocet become addicted. Just because their prescription runs out, their “need” to take more of the drug doesn’t just disappear. Because addiction makes people desperate, they’ll try to find more of the drug however they can. In many cases, that means trying to find “Oxys” on the street.
But the sad truth is, heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain in most places, and it tends to provide the feeling an oxycodone addict is looking for.
Put simply, a prescription opiate addiction can very easily, and very quickly become a heroin addiction, and it very frequently does so. People who normally wouldn’t do heroin will turn to it quickly if they discover they can get the “fix” they need from it.
Ultimately, the substance your body gets addicted to is “opium.” At a certain point, it doesn’t care what form it comes in, as long as it gets more opium.
Getting Help With Opiate Addiction – Whether Heroin or Prescription
The chemical compositions, effects, withdrawal symptoms, and dangers of heroin and prescription opioids is similar. So as you might expect, the treatment of opioids is also similar.
Methadone is a frequently-administered detox drug used to treat opioid addiction and mitigate withdrawal symptoms. You’ll find it often used to treat both heroin and prescription pill addiction, as it activates the same opioid receptors in the body, but doesn’t provide the same euphoric rush. This allows the drug to be used safely, and to be stepped down over time.
For more information on treatment for opioid addiction, you can find out more about Northpoint Washington, and feel free to contact us directly. There’s no shame in falling victim to these highly-addictive substances, especially considering how often they are prescribed to people who don’t understand the risk of addiction. We can help you kick your addiction before it gets any worse than it already is.