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Heroin Abuse Signs, Symptoms, Effects, Overdose, and Treatment

About Heroin Abuse

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a substance that is both illegal and extremely addictive. The drug derives from opium from the poppy plant before it is refined to morphine, then further chemically modified to become heroin. Despite its deserved negative reputation for its high risks, heroin continues to be a commonly abused drug in the U.S.

Heroin is sold and used in a number of forms, including as white or brown powder, a black sticky substance (tar heroin), and solid black chunks. These different forms of heroin can be smoked, snorted, or injected under the skin, into muscle, or directly into the veins.

Regardless of the technique of use, the drug delivers its potent effects quickly. As the strength of any street drug is hard to gauge from batch to batch, the potential to overdose on heroin is always a distinct possibility.

Why Do People Use Heroin?

Heroin is abused for the immediate pleasurable feelings it can elicit, including:

  • A surge of enjoyable feelings called the “rush.”
  • A warm, calm feeling.
  • A heavy, slowed feeling in the arms and legs.
  • An increased sense of well-being and confidence.

Symptoms and Signs of Heroin Addiction

Symptoms and signs of heroin use will depend on how it is used, how often, and how long for.

Immediate Symptoms

Some users report immediate negative symptoms of the drug, like:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Itching.
  • Dry mouth.

Delayed Symptoms

Following the immediate effects of heroin use, another set of symptoms begins to occur that involves the body slowing down and being less active and alert. These signs of heroin use include:

  • Feeling drowsy and sleepy for several hours.
  • Having a foggy mental state.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Slowed heart rate.
  • “Nodding,” where the user will alternate between periods of being awake and asleep.

Signs of Long-Term Heroin Use

With continued use over a period of time, a person abusing heroin may exhibit other signs, like:

  • Needle marks and bruising on the injection sites.
  • Skin problems like abscesses and infections.
  • Heart problems.
  • Disease in organs including the liver and kidneys.
  • Collapsed veins from repeated injections.

If you or someone you love has been displaying any of the above signs and symptoms of heroin abuse, there is something you can do. Call American Addiction Centers (AAC) free at to receive more information and learn about potential treatment options.


Effects of Heroin Abuse

Addiction, tolerance, and dependence are three likely outcomes once someone begins using heroin.

  • Addiction is marked by increased effort and energy assigned to getting and using the drug, even when problems have resulted from use.
  • Tolerance is indicated by the need for more of the substance, higher purity, or different methods of delivery to feel the same effects.
  • Dependence is when your body requires heroin to feel normal and heroin withdrawal symptoms—often described as dope sickness—present without the substance in your body.

These effects transpire because when the drug is used, the active opiate molecules interact with opioid receptors. These receptors, which are located throughout the brain and body, play a role in modifying pain perception, rewarding behaviors, and maintaining body functions like blood pressure and breathing.

Abuse of heroin can lead to unwanted social effects like troubled relationships, being fired from work, financial worries, and legal issues. Also, heroin use is linked to many long-term health consequences, like:

Women who use heroin while pregnant place themselves and their children at risk for miscarriages, low birth weights, and neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which involves the child being born dependent on the substance and enduring withdrawal effects.

Opiate Overdose

Perhaps the most serious effect of heroin use is the risk of overdose. Because of variability in the purity of the substance, as well as a lack of information regarding what is mixed into the drug, dosing is difficult to measure. Effects of heroin overdose include:

  • Dangerously slowed breathing rate.
  • Depressed heart rate.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Permanent brain damage.
  • Coma.
  • Death.

A medication called naloxone—brand name Narcan—is approved to reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.

Am I Addicted to Heroin?

If you’re worried about your use of heroin, you likely have a problem. However, you can use our heroin addiction assessment to help determine your level of addiction and need for treatment.

Heroin Assessment Test

Heroin Abuse Treatment Types

With addiction and dependence to heroin in place, professional treatment is frequently necessary to overcome the influence of the drug. Several effective options are available. The first challenge in heroin recovery is enduring withdrawal symptoms that begin when the substance is no longer in the user’s body. With the right help, recovery from heroin addiction is possible.

Heroin Withdrawal Treatment

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Agitation and edginess.
  • Widespread pain in the bones and muscles.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
  • Feeling cold.
  • Involuntary kicking movements.
  • Strong cravings for more of the substance.

Heroin withdrawal is not usually deadly, but it can be dangerous and extremely uncomfortable, often prompting those who want to quit to return to use in order to avoid the symptoms. With this being the case, supervised detoxification may be needed to safely navigate the early stage of recovery. During detox, a medical treatment team will monitor your symptoms while providing medications that will add to your comfort.

Inpatient and Outpatient Rehab

Many people transition from detox treatment to a rehabilitation program for continued treatment. Rehabs are residential or inpatient programs that vary in length based on the needs of the individual in recovery. This allows for outside distractions to be eliminated and recovery to be the primary focus.

Following on from rehab, outpatient mental health and drug and alcohol counseling, as well as community supports, can be utilized to help a person maintain abstinence from heroin as they reintegrate into their normal environment.

No matter the setting, some aspects of heroin addiction treatment are consistent, including:

  • Behavioral therapy—Done in outpatient, inpatient, and residential settings, behavioral therapy will work to make you aware of your patterns so that you can find ways to modify them towards healthier alternatives.
  • Medication managementMethadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, and other drugs are used during different stages to aid in heroin recovery. Some work by activating the same opioid receptors as heroin does, and others block the receptors so that heroin’s effects are not felt.

Find Heroin Abuse Treatment Programs

Rehab facilities are located throughout the U.S., and a variety of treatment types is available. You can use SAMHSA’s Find Treatment tool to search for opioid addiction treatment centers. Many state government websites will also provide local drug and alcohol resources to those in need. To find your state government’s website, do a web search for your state name and ‘.gov.’

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted rehabs across the country. If you need help with drug abuse or addiction, please contact us free at . You can also call free narcotics and drug abuse hotline numbers.

Heroin Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

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