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Heroin Addiction | Effects, Symptoms, Withdrawal, & Treatment

Heroin Addiction | Effects, Symptoms, Withdrawal, & Treatment

Article Contents

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine. Morphine is an opiate (naturally occurring opioid) that comes from the opium poppy plant.  

Heroin is available as a white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance called black tar heroin. Common street names for the drug include Horse, Hero, Big H, Junk, and Dragon.

Every type of heroin poses a high risk of addiction, also known as substance use disorder. 

How Heroin Affects The Body

Heroin can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked. No matter which method you use, the drug enters your brain very quickly. It then activates opioid receptors, causing a rush of euphoria (intense happiness) and relaxation. 

Other short-term effects of heroin include:

  • drowsiness
  • trouble thinking or focusing 
  • dry mouth
  • smaller pupils
  • limbs that feel heavy
  • skin flushing
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • intense itchiness 
  • slow breathing
  • going in and out of consciousness, also called going “on the nod”

Learn more about How Heroin Affects The Body

Long-Term Effects Of Heroin Use

With continued use, heroin increases your risk of various health problems. For example, some studies show that long-term heroin use causes the brain to lose white matter (brain tissue). This loss can hinder your ability to make decisions, control your behavior, and respond to stress. 

In addition, many drug dealers lace heroin with additives like sugar, starch, and flour. These substances can clog your blood vessels and permanently damage your liver, lungs, kidneys, or brain. 

Other possible effects of long-term heroin use include:

  • trouble sleeping 
  • constipation 
  • depression
  • heart infections
  • miscarriages
  • irregular menstruation 
  • sexual dysfunction in men
  • collapsed veins from injecting the drug
  • damaged nasal tissues from sniffing or snorting the drug
  • lung problems, such as pneumonia, from smoking the drug
  • infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C, from sharing drug equipment or engaging in risky sexual behavior while high

Symptoms Of Heroin Addiction

People who use heroin also face a high risk of addiction. Heroin addiction is a serious disease that makes it hard to feel pleasure without using heroin. Someone who’s addicted to heroin may experience extreme difficulty quitting the drug despite its negative consequences. 

Common signs of heroin addiction include:

  • frequently displaying the side effects of heroin, as listed above
  • withdrawing from friends and family members
  • avoiding responsibilities at work or school 
  • losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • appearing anxious, paranoid, or moody
  • borrowing or stealing money

Most people who are addicted to heroin also experience tolerance and physical dependence.

Tolerance means that over time, you need increasingly higher and more frequent doses of heroin to feel the desired effects.

Physical dependence means your body requires heroin to function normally. If you stop taking the drug, you’ll likely experience withdrawal. 

Heroin Withdrawal

When you’re physically dependent on heroin, withdrawal symptoms can start just a few hours after your last dose. These symptoms may include:

  • extreme cravings for heroin
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • restlessness
  • cold flashes with goosebumps
  • uncontrollable leg movements
  • intense pain in the muscles and/or bones

When left untreated, heroin withdrawal can be life-threatening. If you experience these symptoms, attend a medical detox program. There, health professionals can monitor your symptoms and prescribe medications to make you more comfortable and safe. 

Learn more about Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin Overdose

When you’re addicted to heroin, you face a high risk of overdose, which can be fatal. Overdose occurs when you use too much heroin. Symptoms may include:

  • nausea, vomiting, or gurgling noises
  • slowed or stopped breathing
  • slowed or stopped heartbeat
  • limpness
  • bluish lips or fingernails
  • pale, clammy skin
  • loss of consciousness

Seek emergency health services if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms. In most cases, first responders will administer a medication called naloxone, which can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

If you or someone you’re close to uses heroin (or another opioid), consider keeping naloxone on hand so you can administer it yourself as you wait for professional help. 

You face a higher risk of overdose if you mix heroin with other drugs, such as cocaine, alcohol, or other opioids. Some people unknowingly buy heroin that’s mixed with other drugs, including fentanyl. Fentanyl is an extremely powerful opioid linked to numerous overdose deaths. 

Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

If you or a loved one struggles with heroin addiction, seek help at a substance abuse treatment center. 

When you enter a treatment program, your doctors will design a personalized treatment plan. For most people, heroin addiction recovery begins with medical detox, where you’ll slowly and safely get the heroin out of your system. 

Other popular treatment services include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and therapy. 

During MAT, your doctors can prescribe medications to make your recovery easier. Medications used to treat heroin addiction include:

  • buprenorphine, which can decrease withdrawal symptoms and cravings
  • methadone, which can decrease withdrawal symptoms and cravings
  • lofexidine, which can decrease withdrawal symptoms
  • naltrexone, which can discourage heroin use by blocking its effects

In therapy, mental health professionals can help you develop healthy coping skills and prevent relapse. The most common types of therapy for heroin addiction are:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy, where you can learn to change unhealthy behaviors and treat any underlying mental health issues that contribute to your use of heroin 
  • group therapy, where you can connect with other people recovering from drug use
  • family therapy, where you and your loved ones can learn how to best support your recovery
  • contingency management, where you can receive rewards, such as cash or gift cards, for staying sober and making other positive changes in your life

To learn more about treatment options for heroin addiction, please reach out to a Recovering Champions specialist today. 

Written by Recovering Champions Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Heroin
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Heroin DrugFacts
National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the long-term effects of heroin use?
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Heroin
U.S. National Library of Medicine - Opioid Overdose

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