A by-the-numbers look at the devastating toll of the current heroin epidemic in the United States.

Heroin is an illicit drug and extremely addictive opioid; similar to other opioids, heroin is a naturally occurring substance that is removed from the seed of a poppy plant. Heroin is capable of being injected, inhaled, snorted, sniffed, or smoked. All methods by which heroin is typically ingested allow the drug to delivered rapidly to the brain, which increases the drug’s chance of causing health problems and the development of addiction.1 Heroin users tend to report a “rush” of pleasurable feelings once heroin has reached the brain; the intensity of this “rush” is dependent upon the quantity of the drug taken. The short-term physical effects of heroin are vast and may last several hours: the initial “rush” typically is present alongside warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the body’s limbs and sometimes nausea, vomiting, and severe itching is present as well. Once these first physical effects have come and gone, the individual typically feels sleepy for several hours, their mental function is clouded, their heart function slowes, and their breathing is severely slowed.2 Aside from potential death, heroin can have many detrimental long-term effects, such as: weakening of the immune system, coma, respiratory illnesses, muscular weakness, partial paralysis loss of memory and intellectual performance, depression, and bad teeth. Additionally, needles are frequently shared among heroin users, which can lead to the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. In fact, an estimated 70% of those newly infected each year with hepatitis C2 are a result of intravenous drug use.3

Authorities at both federal and local levels all over the country say that the rapidly growing heroin use is currently the country’s biggest drug epidemic.4 Heroin use has been increasing at an alarming pace, resulting in rapid increases in addiction and overdose: within the last 10 years, heroin use has more than doubled among adults between the ages of 18 and 25 and heroin-related overdose deaths has increased by 286% from 2002 to 2013.5 The number of heroin-related overdoses nearly tripled between the years 2010 and 2013. Additionally, the number of heroin-related overdoses were four times greater for men than for women in 2013, with the death toll for men at 6,525.6 This epidemic has affected young adults at a more alarming rate than other age groups; Americans between the ages 18 and 25 had a 109 percent increase from 2002-2004 to 2011-2013 and Americans 26 and older increased by 58 percent.7

Dissimilar to the crack epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s that was primarily defined in predominantly poor and black urban areas, the heroin epidemic has reached all demographic groups.8 In 2000, the highest death rate of heroin-related overdoses was among black Americans between the ages of 46 and 64.7 Heroin use has increased most dramatically among non-Hispanic whites between the ages of 18 and 44; almost 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time within the past decade were white non-Hispanic.7,8 In efforts to increase profits, heroin dealers have infiltrated typical areas of affluence such as suburbs all around the country. Within these communities their market consumers have become high school students, college students, athletes, teachers, and professionals.4 In 2013, the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States had the highest rates of heroin-related overdose, increasing nearly 11-fold for the Midwest and 4-fold for the Northeast since 2000.6 Despite these areas having the highest heroin death rate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that across 28 states, representing 56 percent of the population, the overall heroin death rate has doubled between 2010-2012.9 As this epidemic continues to grow and touch the lives of more and more families all over the country, the greater the legal, social, and political efforts become to end this public health problem.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugfacts: Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use? In Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-heroin-use.
  3. Foundation For A Drug-Free World. (2016). Long-term effects of heroin. In The Truth About Heroin. Retrieved from http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/heroin/long-term-effects.html.
  4. Whitaker, B. (2015). Heroin in the heartland. CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/heroin-in-the-heartland-60-minutes/.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Today’s heroin epidemic. In Vital Signs. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. (2015). Drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin: United States, 2000-2013. In NCHS Data Brief. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db190.pdf/.
  7. Cook, L. (2015). The heroin epidemic, in 9 graphs. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/08/19/the-heroin-epidemic-in-9-graphs.
  8. Seelye, K.Q. (2015). In heroin crisis, white families seek gentler war on drugs. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/31/us/heroin-war-on-drugs-parents.html?_r=0.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Heroin overdose deaths increased in many states through 2012. In CDC Newsroom. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p1002-heroin-overdose.html.