How Prescription Drug Abuse Can Lead to Heroin Addiction ?

An estimated 52 million Americans have used prescription painkillers for nonmedical purposes at least once in their lifetime; 6.1 million people have used them in the last month[1].  With over 80% of prescription opioids obtained by users from one doctor, characteristics that mimic heroin, and heroin available for a fraction of the cost of a prescription drug, it’s easy to see how prescription drugs abuse can lead to heroin addiction.

Characteristics/Similarities of Prescription Opioids and Heroin

Prescription opioid drugs are derived from opium, the same source used to make heroin; the major difference is that prescription opiates are created by pharmacological scientists in controlled lab settings.  Prescription opioids are nearly identical in composition to heroin and morphine, even affecting the same areas of the brain.
Prescription opioids, including Oxycontin and Vicodin, and heroin attach to the body’s opioid receptors and create similar effects, including:


  • Reduced perception of pain;
  • Increased sense of pleasure and well-being;
  • Drowsiness;
  • Confusion;
  • Nausea;
  • High levels of addiction;
  • Violent withdrawal

Reasons Prescription Drug Abuse Leads to Heroin Addiction


Prescription drugs have been prescribed in large quantities and often without much regulation by health officials.  In fact, prescription drug abuse has gotten so bad that the CDC recently called on doctors to stop prescribing them for common ailments like back aches and joint pain.  To put prescription drug abuse in perspective, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but uses 3/4 of the prescription drugs prescribed worldwide[2].
Opiate-based pain pills cost roughly $1 per milligram for people without health insurance; the same amount of heroin can be purchased for roughly 1/10th the cost.  Considering prescription opioids and heroin produce nearly identical effects in the body and since both are extremely addictive, people commonly turn to heroin when pain pills are no longer available or affordable. Currently, it is estimated that 1 out of every 3 heroin addicts became addicted after first using prescription pain medication.

Who Is At Risk?

Anyone prescribed prescription pain medication is at risk for addiction and ultimately heroin addiction.  The traditional stereotypical “junkie” heroin addict has been replaced with affluent heroin addicts who first were first exposed to prescription pain medication.


Considering doctors wrote almost 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers in 2014 and that heroin addiction and prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high, this problem shows little signs of slowing down.


However, it helps to be aware of the most common reasons people, and especially teens, use prescription drugs; the top reasons provided include:


  • Easy to access;
  • Prescribed medications are not illegal;
  • Opioids are easy to get through other people’s prescription;
  • Cheap with insurance;
  • Safer than illegal drugs;
  • Easy to purchase online;
  • Fewer side effects than heroin.


Looking at the reasons why people use prescription drugs and considering the similarities between prescription opioids and heroin, it is easy to see how anyone using opioids prescribed to treat a medical issue can slip into drug abuse and even turn to heroin to feed their addiction.




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