Heroin Addiction: Abuse, Side Effects, And Treatment

Heroin abuse can quickly lead to physical dependence and addiction. People who abuse heroin are at risk of overdose as well as severe health issues, like heart problems and brain damage. Heroin addiction treatment involves a whole-life change.

Because heroin makes people feel pleasant and relaxed, it is widely abused. Approximately 948,000 Americans used heroin in 2016, and 15,000 people died of heroin-related overdose the following year.

Heroin abuse can lead to addiction and have devastating effects on a person’s life and health. Treatment programs for heroin abuse and addiction can help individuals learn to quit use of the drug in time, treat cravings, and teach individuals to build a substance-free life.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opiate derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance in the poppy plant. It has no approved medical use. This drug binds to opioid receptors throughout the body to reduce breathing and heart rate, block pain, and produce euphoria.

In the brain, heroin increases the natural amount of dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical that rewards people for positive behaviors such as exercise.

Heroin also intercepts pain messages that travel through the spinal cord to the brain and slows the functioning of the central nervous system.

How Do People Abuse Heroin?

Heroin may be a white powder, brown powder, or black, tar-like substance. People who abuse this drug in the U.S. typically snort it or inject it.

Snorting (insufflation) consists of inhaling the drug through the nose. Tiny nasal blood vessels absorb the heroin into the bloodstream for fast effects.

Heroin is water-soluble and can be dissolved for injection into veins, muscles, or under the skin. An intravenous injection puts heroin directly into the bloodstream for a rapid and intense high.

Though uncommon in the U.S., some people smoke heroin by placing the powder on tinfoil and heating it from below. It gives off vapors that a person inhales to feel its effects. This practice is called “chasing the dragon.”

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Injecting and smoking heroin causes the drug to reach the brain quickly, which increases the risk of someone becoming addicted to it. Some people believe that snorting heroin is less dangerous, but it still carries a high risk of dependence, addiction, and adverse health effects.

Heroin Abuse And Health

Snorting heroin can destroy delicate nasal tissue and wear a hole through the nasal septum or palate (roof of the mouth). Smoking heroin can cause damage to the lungs, especially if it contains harsh additives.

Heroin injection is a serious issue that can lead to many other health concerns. Injection drug use spikes the risk of disease transmission from shared syringes (particularly HIV and hepatitis). It can also cause bacterial infections, even if a person does not share needles.

Collapsed veins, abscesses, and heart infection (endocarditis) are other negative consequences of heroin injection.

Heroin can cause many health problems, no matter how it is used. It has been linked to sexual dysfunction in men and irregular menstruation in women. Abusing heroin may result in constipation, insomnia, and lung issues from depressed breathing.

Research shows that heroin abuse can destroy white matter in the brain, which may affect a person’s ability to make decisions, regulate behavior, and deal with stress. This can cause or worsen mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial personality disorder.

Side Effects Of Heroin Abuse

Because of heroin’s sedation effect, a person may have trouble thinking clearly (brain fog) while on it. Their breathing and heart rate will be significantly depressed, and they may feel a heavy sensation in their extremities.

Other side effects of heroin abuse include:

  • flushed skin
  • dry mouth
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • itching
  • drowsiness

When someone abuses heroin for a prolonged period, they develop a tolerance to it. They need more of the drug to feel the same effect. Tolerance often leads to physical dependence, a condition in which the body relies on heroin and has withdrawal symptoms without it.

Physical dependence and mental addiction often occur together. The more someone takes heroin, the more they reinforce their brain to use the drug to regulate dopamine. As a result, the brain adapts to heroin being present, and its natural function becomes weak.

Signs And Symptoms Of Heroin Addiction

When someone is addicted to heroin, obtaining and using the drug is their first priority. This may lead to strained relationships and poor performance at work or school. Addiction often causes people to lose interest in things they once loved and to live a completely different life.

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction may be:

  • seeming sedated all the time
  • heroin cravings
  • heroin withdrawal symptoms
  • drug-related health problems
  • selling possessions or stealing money to pay for heroin

A hallmark of addiction is a loss of control over drug use despite negative health or life consequences. Even if a person is aware that they have a problem and want to stop using heroin, it is very challenging for them to do so on their own.

Heroin Overdose Risk

A person can overdose on heroin by taking too much at once or over a period of time. Overlapping doses of heroin can cause the drug to build up to toxic levels before the body is able to process it.

Chronic respiratory depression from heroin abuse can lead to hypoxia, a condition in which the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. Hypoxia can cause permanent brain damage.

Heroin overdose can result in severely slowed breathing and heart rate, coma, or death. These symptoms are even more likely when heroin is combined with another central nervous system depressant (alcohol, benzodiazepines, or a different opioid).

In the U.S., there were five times as many heroin-related overdoses in 2017 than in 2010. This increase is partially due to a high rate of opioid prescriptions. Many people become addicted to prescription opioids then turn to heroin as a cheaper and more available alternative.

Since heroin is a street drug, there are no regulations that keep it pure. Dealers may mix it with cutting agents like baking soda, laundry detergent, or other substances of abuse to increase their supply.

In the last few years, many heroin overdose cases have involved fentanyl, a potent opioid drug found laced into heroin, often without the knowledge of the person using it.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal can be very unpleasant. A person may begin to experience symptoms a few hours after the last dose.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:

  • muscle and bone pain
  • cold flashes
  • goosebumps
  • leg tremors
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • restlessness
  • insomnia
  • heroin cravings

Many people keep taking heroin and even increase how much they take to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It is challenging to rid the body of heroin without support.

Medical Detox For Heroin Addiction

Medical detox programs provide a safe, inpatient environment for people to withdraw from heroin. The clinical staff keeps the individual stabilized and may provide medication to reduce cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.

Detox is not a treatment for heroin addiction but is a vital first step toward recovery. Heroin detox is not typically considered dangerous, but medical support is necessary to help individuals complete the detox process so they can move on to treatment.

Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

To fully recover from addiction, a person needs to address the issues surrounding substance abuse in their life.

Behavioral therapy is an essential part of heroin addiction treatment that works to alter negative thought patterns that lead to a destructive lifestyle. Underlying issues such as trauma or mental disorders can cause a person to relapse if not addressed during treatment.

Heroin addiction touches many areas of life, so recovery requires a whole-life change. At Vertava Health of Massachusetts, we offer a variety of alternative therapies—like yoga, music, and sports—that build coping skills and support overall health.

We also provide medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction if needed. This type of treatment combines medications to stave off cravings and other withdrawal symptoms as well as counseling and therapy.

Suboxone (buprenorphine) or Vivitrol (naltrexone) are two medications we offer to reduce heroin withdrawal symptoms that may linger after detox. This helps the individual focus on recovery as they participate in counseling and therapy.

The inpatient setting at Vertava Health of Massachusetts immerses people in this healing process. Residents receive intensive and personalized care that prepares them to resist relapse and find freedom from addiction.

For more information on our inpatient treatment options for heroin and opioid addictions, contact a Vertava Health of Massachusetts treatment specialist today.


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