What is the pathophysiology of heroin toxicity?

Updated: Dec 31, 2020
  • Author: Rania Habal, MD; Chief Editor: Jeter (Jay) Pritchard Taylor, III, MD  more...
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Heroin is a highly addictive semisynthetic opioid that is derived from morphine. When used intravenously, it is three to five times more potent than its parent compound and is able to modulate pain perception and cause euphoria. Similar to morphine, heroin and its metabolites have mu, kappa, and delta receptor activity. In general, stimulation of the mu receptors results in analgesia, euphoria, CNS depression, respiratory depression, and miosis. Stimulation of the delta and kappa receptors also results in analgesia, but the kappa receptors are mostly involved in spinal analgesia. [2]

Heroin, similar to morphine and other narcotics, reduces the brain's responsiveness to changes in carbon dioxide levels and hypoxia, thus resulting in respiratory depression. It also reduces peripheral vascular resistance (resulting in mild hypotension), causes mild vasodilation of the cutaneous blood vessels (resulting in flushing), and stimulates histamine release (resulting in pruritus). [2]

Heroin's inhibitory effects on baroreceptor reflexes result in bradycardia, even in the face of hypotension. [2]

Finally, heroin decreases gastric motility, inhibits the effect of acetylcholine on the small intestine, and diminishes the colonic propulsive waves, resulting in prolongation of gastric emptying time by as much as 12 hours, with consequent constipation in habitual users. [2]

The onset of action, peak effects, and duration of action vary with the different methods of heroin use. Onset of action occurs within 1-2 minutes with intravenous injection and within 15-30 minutes with intramuscular injection. Heroin's peak therapeutic and toxic effects are generally reached within 10 minutes with intravenous injection, within 30 minutes with intramuscular injection or when snorted, and within 90 minutes when injected subcutaneously. Analgesic effects generally last 3-5 hours. [2]

Intravenously injected heroin creates a rush, or a sensation of intense pleasure, that begins within 1 minute of the injection and lasts from 1 minute to a few minutes. This rush is followed by a period of sedation that lasts about an hour. The initial rush is likely due to heroin's high lipid solubility and rapid penetration to the brain. The half-life of heroin is 15-30 minutes. [2]

Heroin is rapidly converted to 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM) by the liver, brain, heart, and kidneys and may not be detected in the blood at the time of blood draw. 6-MAM is then converted to morphine. Morphine is metabolized by the liver and excreted as a glucuronide product or in its free form by the kidneys. Morphine's half-life is considerably longer than heroin's (ie, 2-3 h). A small amount of unchanged 6-MAM is excreted in the urine for up to 24 hours after heroin use. Because 6-MAM can originate only from heroin, its detection in the urine can mean only that the patient used either heroin or 6-MAM. [2]

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