Most people inject or shoot heroin intravenously to achieve an immediate and potent high. However, an increasing number of people have engaged in other methods of heroin administration, including inhaling heroin vapor.
Some heroin users smoke the drug because they want to avoid the social stigma associated with intravenous drug use, while others smoke it because they believe it is a safe alternative to injecting. Although smoking the drug has a lower risk of overdose and viral infections than injecting it, any form of heroin use can cause serious health problems, including heroin addiction.
People often smoke heroin by heating the drug on aluminum foil above a flame and then inhaling the smoke through a glass tube, straw or rolled up dollar bill.
This method is also known as “chasing the dragon.” The slang phrase originated in China and referred to inhaling vapor from a heated opioid solution. Heroin can also be smoked with a water pipe, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
The Center for Substance Abuse Research states that the effects of heroin are felt within 10 to 15 minutes of inhalation. During the next two to five minutes, people experience an adrenaline rush.
When the rush ends, heart rate decreases and breathing slows. This can lead to a feeling of heaviness and distance from one’s surroundings. Because heroin inhalation sedates the central nervous system, individuals often experience drowsiness for several hours after the euphoric effects fade.
When smoked, heroin produces many of the same effects people feel when injecting, sniffing or snorting heroin. These effects can include nausea, clouded mental functioning and respiratory depression. Heroin can also cause itching and flushing of the skin.
People don’t become addicted to heroin the first time they try it, but repeated use can lead to addiction.
Inhaling heroin can cause a set of health problems different from those caused by other methods of administration. Smoking the drug puts significant strain on the lungs.
Health complications related to smoking heroin include:
Viral infections such as hepatitis and HIV are also an outcome of smoking heroin, though the risk of developing these diseases is more common among intravenous heroin users.
Black tar heroin is a rock-like form of the drug that can be smoked, although it is more commonly injected. Smoking black tar heroin can cause drowsiness, respiratory depression and and other signs of heroin use.
The risk of accidental overdose is much lower when smoking heroin than when injecting the drug. But overdose can still occur after inhaling heroin because the drug suppresses breathing. If left untreated, heroin overdose can lead to death.
Signs of heroin overdose include:
Smoking heroin has contributed to the opioid epidemic, a public health crisis responsible for numerous overdoses and treatment admissions across the United States. In King County, Washington, half of people aged 18 to 29 who sought treatment for heroin problems in 2015 reported smoking the drug.
People addicted to heroin can experience heroin withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, anxiety and sleep problems. To safely overcome these side effects and start recovery from addiction, individuals with a heroin use disorder should consider heroin treatment. At rehab, trained medical experts can provide the medications, therapy and nutritional advice needed to overcome heroin addiction.