Heroin is most often associated with intravenous drug use. The media is full of images of heroin users tying their arms and injecting the drug into their veins with a needle. However, it can also be smoked and snorted, depending on the consistency of the substance. The purest form of heroin comes in a white powder that can easily be snorted up the nose for high that is nearly just as fast as a high via injection.
Alternatively, pretty much any form of heroin can be smoked. This involves heating up the drug, which is often done either in a small glass pipe or on simple aluminum foil, and inhaling the smoke through the pipe or a small straw. This method of intake is considered to result in the fastest high as the drug goes right to the lungs, into the blood, and to the brain. However, the drug slows down respiratory functions, which, in large doses can starve the brain of oxygen and lead to coma or death.
Taking heroin is never safe. It’s a potent opioid that’s highly addictive and comes with a high risk of overdose. In fact, deaths from heroin overdose increased sixfold in the U.S. from 2001 to 2014. And, since it’s only available in an illicit form, there is a high risk that it is contaminated (“cut”) with other substances, either to make it more potent or to make it look like buyers are getting more heroin than they actually are. Heroin sold on the street is almost never pure.
Smoking any substance is hard on the lungs and can lead to serious health problems. Those suffering from asthma are especially at risk, as it can lead to a higher chance and frequency of asthma attacks. Heat from the pipe and foil, plus the simple heat of the smoke, can result in burns.
After a long enough time, smoking heroin can have serious negative effects on the lungs, including long term damage. These include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Status asthmaticus (having one asthma attack after another)
- Respiratory infection
- Reduction of white matter in the brain
People may choose to smoke or snort heroin because these methods are considered to be less dangerous than intravenous use. Though there are unique risks associated with heroin injection, particularly the chance of contracting dangerous viruses like HIV and hepatitis C from needle sharing, snorting or smoking the drug can be just as dangerous. Some users believe that it’s not possible to overdose on heroin when smoking it, but this is a myth. Any intake of heroin can be deadly if too much is used, if it’s laced with other substances, or if it’s intentionally mixed with other intoxicants.