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Side Effects Of Heroin, Withdrawal Symptoms, & Treatment

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People who consume heroin may develop the following conditions over time, be careful of these signs of long-term heroin side effects on the brain and body. Learn more about the addiction process, usage, medical detox, and rehab treatment options.

By We Level Up | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: October 24, 2022

Dangerous Side Effects Of Heroin

What Is Heroin? Why is Heroin Use So Risky?

Heroin is a drug that reaches the brain very fast once it’s consumed, for this reason, it is straightforward for a person to develop heroin addiction even from one or a few uses. Before we get to the main topic, let’s learn about what heroin is. According to the scientific piece ‘Heroin’, published by The National Library of Medicine, “Heroin is a white or brown powder or a black, sticky goo. It’s an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance in the seedpod of the Asian poppy plant.

It can be mixed with water and injected with a needle. Heroin can also be smoked or snorted up the nose. All these ways of taking heroin send it to the brain quickly. This makes it very addictive.

Regular use of heroin can lead to tolerance. This means users need more and more drugs to have the same effect. At higher doses over time, the body becomes dependent on heroin. If dependent users stop heroin, they have withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea and vomiting, and cold flashes with goosebumps”. 

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How Heroin Is Used?

Heroin is a fast-acting, highly addictive drug that is processed from morphine, a legal opioid narcotic. Unlike morphine, heroin is an illegal substance and the most commonly abused drug in the opioid class. The usage of heroin creates a state of relaxation and euphoria for the user that’s caused by the binding of the drug to the body’s endorphin sites. By binding to the body’s natural pain relievers, heroin blocks signal to the brain which in turn blocks an individual’s ability to feel pain.

Most commonly, heroin is used intravenously by injection with a needle. Other forms of use include smoking, inhalation with a pipe, snorting, or inhalation with the use of a straw.

The heroin side effects can become pretty severe if individuals use it for a long time.
The side effects of heroin can become pretty severe if individuals use it for a long time.

Immediately after heroin is injected, it crosses the blood-brain barrier, converting it into morphine and binds to opioid receptors. Once consumed heroin is said to create a surge of pleasurable sensations, which is referred to as a “rush” or “high.” The intensity of the rush depends on how much of the drug is taken and how fast it enters the brain. The immediacy with which heroin enters the brain and the resulting “rush” is what makes this drug so addictive.

Heroin is most commonly found in white or brown powder form. Other forms of heroin may include a black sticky substance known as “black tar heroin.” Acquiring heroin on the streets is dangerous because you cannot be sure what it is mixed with or the exact level of purity you are receiving. Often street heroin is mixed with sugar, starch, pesticides, or other poisons which puts heroin users at an increased level of risk for overdose and death. Other common street names for heroin include: “smack,” “thunder,” “poppy,” “white junk,” and “dead on arrival.”

Heroin Epidemic

The number of people in the United States who use heroin has risen steadily since 2007. A factor that played a role in the rise of heroin is the growing abuse of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which are also made from the poppy plant and are chemically related to heroin. People who become dependent on or misuse these drugs may start looking for a stronger, cheaper high. Heroin is both. But it’s also more dangerous. There’s no way to know what you’re taking or how strong it is.

The U.S. opioid overdose death rate rose nearly 400% between 2010 and 2017. Some of these deaths happen because heroin is laced with other drugs, such as the powerful painkiller fentanyl. Fentanyl has become one of the leading contributors to overdose deaths in the U.S.

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Side Effects Of Heroin Statistics

(Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

800,000

About 800,000 Americans engaged in heroin use in 2018.

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(Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

115,000

From 1999-2018, heroin use was responsible for more than 115,000 deaths in the United States.

(Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

700%

From 1999-2008, the annual number of deaths related to heroin use increased by more than 700%.

Side Effects Of Heroin FAQs

How Do People Use Heroin?

Heroin is injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked. Speedballing is the term for the practice of combining heroin with crack cocaine.

What Is The Connection Between Prescription Opioids & Heroin?

The effects of prescription opioid pain relievers like OxyContin and Vicodin are comparable to those of heroin. According to research, abusing these medicines can lead to heroin use. According to data from 2011, between 4 and 6 percent of persons who misuse prescription opioids move to heroin, and 80 percent of people who first misused prescription opioids go on to use heroin. More recent findings indicate that people typically use heroin as their first opiate. One-third of people in treatment for opioid use disorder who participated in a study said heroin was the first opioid they frequently used to get high.

Why Is Heroin Connected To Injection Drug Use, HIV, & Hepatitis?

HIV and the hepatitis C (HCV) virus are highly contagious among those who inject substances like heroin. Sharing needles or other injection drug use equipment can result in direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids, which is how many infections are spread. In the United States, HCV is the most prevalent bloodborne infection. During unprotected sex, HIV (and less frequently HCV) can also be acquired, which is made more likely by drug use.

What Are Some Potential Effects Of Heroin?

Heroin frequently contains additives that might clog blood vessels in the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, resulting in long-term harm. Examples of these additions include sugar, starch, and powdered milk. Additionally, drug usage impairs judgment, and sharing drug injection equipment raises the risk of developing infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

Can A Person Overdose On Heroin?

Yes, a heroin overdose is possible. When a person consumes enough heroin to cause a life-threatening reaction or death, they have overdosed. Overdoses of heroin have surged recently.

People who overdose on heroin frequently experience slowed or stopped respiration. This may result in hypoxia, a condition when there is a reduction in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. Hypoxia can cause unconsciousness and permanent brain damage, as well as short- and long-term mental and neurological system impacts.

How Can A Heroin Overdose Be Treated?

When administered quickly, the drug naloxone can treat an opioid overdose. It functions by quickly attaching to opioid receptors and obstructing heroin’s and other opioid medications’ effects. It may take more than one dose to help someone start breathing again, so it’s crucial to get them to an emergency room or a doctor so they may get any more assistance they require.

The nasal sprays NARCAN Nasal Spray and KLOXXADO, as well as an injectable (needle) solution, are both ways to get naloxone. The nasal spray variants of naloxone can be used to revive an overdosing person by friends, family, and neighbors.

Public health initiatives to improve naloxone availability to at-risk individuals and their families, as well as first responders and other members of the community, have increased due to the rising incidence of opioid overdose deaths. There are rules in some jurisdictions that permit pharmacists to give naloxone without a patient’s personal physician’s prescription.

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin has a high rate of addiction. Regular heroin users frequently acquire a tolerance to the drug, requiring higher and/or more frequent dosages to get the desired results. When drug use persists and produces problems, such as health issues and an inability to fulfill obligations at a job, school, or family, it is called a substance use disorder (SUD). Addiction is the most severe form of SUD, which can range in severity from mild to severe.

If a heroin addict quickly stops using the substance, they could experience acute withdrawal. The following are examples of withdrawal symptoms, which can start as soon as a few hours after the last dose of the drug:

-Restlessness
-Severe skeletal and muscular discomfort
-Issues with sleep
-Constipation and vomiting
-Shivering and goosebumps (“cold turkey”)
-Involuntary leg movements (“kicking the habit”)
-Severe opiates withdrawals

The long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain are a topic of research. According to studies, heroin use is related to some white matter loss in the brain, which may have an impact on one’s ability to make decisions, manage their behavior, and respond to stressful situations.

What Are Side Effects Of Heroin?

Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

What Are The Side Effects Of Heroin Use?

Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. The typical drug side effects of heroin typically include the following:

Short-Term Side Effects Of Heroin:  

People report feeling a “rush” (a surge of pleasure, or euphoria) when using Heroin. Nevertheless, there are other short-term symptoms of this drug, which can include: 

  • Dry mouth
  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe itching
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Going “on the nod,” a back-and-forth state of being conscious and semiconscious. 

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Heroin Effect On The Brain

Substances cause a three-pronged response in the brain, each of which helps to cement its continued use. These three aspects of the addiction process include 1) the side effects of heroin on the brain (intoxication), 2) the anticipation of and preoccupation with re-experiencing this side effect of heroin due to the takeover of the brain’s reward system, and 3) the withdrawal phase where negative conditioning takes place. In that final phase, seeking relief from the withdrawal symptoms is the chief motivator.

Heroin affects the brain by attaching to its opioid receptors. This causes a release of dopamine that the person experiences as a euphoric high, drowsiness, and relaxation due to a slowed respiratory rate. The brain registers the pleasant effects as something positive. A pattern commences, starting with intense intoxication, increased tolerance, escalation in heroin use, and withdrawal symptoms that trigger a repeat of the pattern. This culminates in dependency and/or addiction.

The first aspect of the addiction process includes the heroin side effects on the brain or intoxication.
The first aspect of the heroin addiction process includes heroin symptoms in the brain and in the body, such as boils.

Heroin Effects on the Body

It is impossible to know from appearance alone whether someone is using heroin. However, heroin use can sometimes cause changes in someone’s physical appearance. Someone who is addicted to heroin may experience weight loss. Their pupils may also present as smaller than normal, which is sometimes referred to as “pinpoint” pupils.

Additionally, this person may become less concerned with their physical appearance and hygiene, or appear messier, but this is not always the case. Someone who injects heroin may have scars on their body to indicate the injection, such as on their arms or legs. In severe cases, these injection sites may become infected or cause abscesses to form.

Long-Term Heroin Side Effects

People who consume heroin may develop the following conditions over time, be careful of these long term side effects of Heroin:

  • Insomnia
  • Collapsed veins for people who inject the drug
  • Damaged tissue inside the nose for people who sniff or snort it
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
  • Constipation and stomach cramping
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia
  • Mental disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
  • Sexual dysfunction for men
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Heroin often contains additives, such as sugar, starch, or powdered milk, that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage. Also, sharing drug injection equipment and having impaired judgment from drug use can increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

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Risks of Heroin

No specific cause of heroin addiction has been identified, but research supports several possibilities. These possibilities include:

  • Genetic: Research has suggested genetics as a cause of heroin addiction. Individuals who have family members that are addicted to heroin or other substances appear to be more likely to develop a heroin addiction than those without a family history of the disorder.
  • Biological: Another theory suggests the possibility that some individuals may not produce enough natural endorphins in their brain which affects mood. This could lead to heroin abuse to cope with this chemical imbalance.
  • Environmental: It has been postulated that people who have been exposed to a parent or guardian abusing heroin or other drugs may be at a greater risk for developing substance abuse problems in later life. Seeing the drug abused can cause a child to “normalize” the drug, therefore making it more accessible later in life.
Treatment for heroin addiction includes medical detox treatments and behavioral therapies for addiction.
Treatment for heroin addiction includes medical detox treatments and behavioral therapies for addiction.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Treatment for heroin addiction includes medical detox treatments and behavioral therapies for addiction. For a treatment to be effective, it’s important to match the best treatment approach to meet the particular needs of each patient. Medicines are being developed to help with the withdrawal process. The FDA approved lofexidine, a non-opioid medicine designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin Addiction is a serious condition that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up rehab treatment & detox center can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from heroin addiction with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.

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Sources

[1] ‘Heroin’ – National Library of Medicine (Medlineplus.gov)
[2] ‘Heroin DrugFacts’ – The National Institute on Drug Abuse (drugabuse.gov)
[3] ‘[Heroin Addiction]’, Sándor Hosztafi, National Library of Medicine (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)

Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Surratt HL, Kurtz SP. The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(7):821-826. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.366.
Carlson RG, Nahhas RW, Martins SS, Daniulaityte R. Predictors of transition to heroin use among initially non-opioid dependent illicit pharmaceutical opioid users: A natural history study. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016;160:127-134. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.12.026.
Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Kasper ZA. Increased use of heroin as an initiating opioid of abuse. Addict Behav. 2017 Nov;74:63-66. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.05.030. Epub 2017 May 23. PubMed PMID: 28582659. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28582659

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2015. CDC WONDER Online Database. https://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10.html. Accessed April 4, 2017.
Li W, Li Q, Zhu J, et al. White matter impairment in chronic heroin dependence: a quantitative DTI study. Brain Res. 2013;1531:58-64. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2013.07.036.
Liu J, Qin W, Yuan K, et al. Interaction between dysfunctional connectivity at rest and heroin cues-induced brain responses in male abstinent heroin-dependent individuals. PloS One. 2011;6(10):e23098. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023098.
Qiu Y, Jiang G, Su H, et al. Progressive white matter microstructure damage in male chronic heroin dependent individuals: a DTI and TBSS study. PloS One. 2013;8(5):e63212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063212.

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