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Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug, and its use has repercussions that extend far beyond the individual user. The medical and social consequences of drug use—such as hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, fetal effects, crime, violence, and disruptions in family, workplace, and educational environments—have a devastating impact on society and cost billions of dollars each year.

Although heroin use in the general population is rather low, the numbers of people starting to use heroin have been steadily rising since 2007. This may be due in part to a shift from misuse of prescription pain relievers to heroin as a readily available, cheaper alternatives and the misperception that pure heroin is safer than less pure forms because it does not need to be injected. 

The Link Between Heroin & Prescription Drug Misuse

Harmful health consequences resulting from the misuse of opioid medications that are prescribed for the treatment of pain, such as Oxycontin®, Vicodin®, and Demerol®, have dramatically increased in recent years. For example, almost half of all opioid deaths in the U.S. now involve a prescription opioid. People often assume prescription pain relievers are safer than illicit drugs because they are medically prescribed; however, when these drugs are taken for reasons or in ways or amounts not intended by a doctor, or taken by someone other than the person for whom they are prescribed, they can result in severe adverse health effects including substance use disorder, overdose, and death, especially when combined with other drugs or alcohol.

Research now suggests that misuse of these medications may actually open the door to heroin use. Some also report switching to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids.

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