How Heroin and Cocaine Differ


Ask anyone to name the most addictive drug in the world, and he or she will likely say either heroin or cocaine.

Most of us know that both drugs are toxic and dangerous, but what makes one drug different from the other?


Heroin is one of several opiate drugs, referred to as such because it is obtained from the Asian opium producing poppy plant. The official name for heroin is Diacetylmorphine or Diamorphine. It is related to other painkilling opiates such as morphine, thebaine and codeine.

Cocaine comes from the leaves of the Erythroxylon coca, or Coca bush, which thrives in the South American countries of Bolivia and Peru.

Taste and Appearance

Cocaine is said to taste peculiar and can have a numbing effect on the tongue, but it is less bitter tasting than non-numbing heroin.

Heroin looks much like powdered milk, although some forms are brownish instead of white. Even in powdered form, cocaine's crystalline structure is apparent. It may even glimmer a bit if exposed to light.

General Effects

The powerful painkiller heroin is a sedative or depressant, which is why it is called a downer. It has a dampening effect on central nervous system activity. When injected, it mimics the brain’s endorphins, creating a temporary sense of well-being or euphoria, followed by feelings of physical heaviness and a relaxed wakeful-drowsy state.

Cocaine is a central nervous system stimulant – or an upper – and is also an appetite suppressant. In the brain, cocaine increases the level of our neurotransmitter dopamine. Users feel energized, “buzzed,” or over-the-top happy. However, high cocaine doses may lead to restlessness, agitation, paranoia, convulsions and hallucinations.

Toxic Effects

Heroin's suppression of the respiratory system sometimes causes addicts to experience a sensation of suffocation. A large dose can overwhelm and shut down an individual’s respiratory system, causing death. There is an antidote available for heroin called naloxone.

Snorting cocaine eventually damages membranes lining the nose and may rupture the nasal septum, the tissue dividing the nostrils. Cocaine is cardio-toxic, and an overdose can cause death by triggering arrhythmias, or irregular heart beats, leading to heart failure. There is no antidote for cocaine.

Sources: Drug Abuse, The Difference Between


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