Heroin Abuse

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About Heroin Abuse

What Is Heroin?

Heroin use is increasing across new demographics. Learn more about this disturbing trend.

Heroin is a substance that is both illegal and extremely addictive. The substance 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 US.

Heroin is sold and used in a number of forms including 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.

What Heroin Looks Like

Concerned that your teen is using heroin but aren’t sure what to look for? Keep an eye out for paraphernalia that is often associated with heroin use, such as spoons, lighters, and syringes.

Depending on the type of heroin your teen is using, you may even be able to smell the drug.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin abuse will depend on how much, how often, and how long it has been abused.

Immediate Symptoms

Some users report immediate negative symptoms from the drug like:

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

Delayed Symptoms

Following the immediate effects of heroin, another set of symptoms begin to occur that involve 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 Use

With continued use over a period of time, the 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 1-888-744-0069 to receive more information and potential treatment options.

Video: A Deadly Dance

The following short documentary from the New York Times illustrates the heroin addiction epidemic in the US.

Credit: The New York Times

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 from use have resulted.
  • Tolerance is indicated by the need for more of the substance, higher purity, or different methods of delivery to feel the same results.
  • Dependence is when your body requires heroin to feel normal and withdrawal symptoms 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:

  • Increased risk of infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
  • Persistent mental health issues such as depression and personality changes.
  • Reproductive issues like sexual dysfunction and inconsistent menstrual cycles.
  • Damage to the septum and nose tissues from snorting.

Women that use the drug while pregnant place themselves and their child at risk for miscarriages, low birth weight, 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 is the risk of overdose. Because of variability in purity of the substance as well as lack of information regarding what is mixed into the drug, dosing is difficult to measure. Effects of 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 an overdose.

Who’s Using Heroin?


Heroin is a drug that attracts many new users annually. Consider the following statistics regarding the drug according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

  • From 2002 to 2012, the past year use of heroin increased by more than 50%.
  • In 2012, almost 670,000 reported to use heroin within the last year.
  • The number of people that met criteria for a diagnosis of heroin abuse or heroin dependence doubled from 2002 to 2012.

Learn more about heroin and patterns of abuse at our page, Heroin History and Statistics.

Heroin Abuse Treatment

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.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:
You don’t have to fight a battle against heroin alone. Learn about treatment programs now.

  • 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 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.

Many people transition from detox treatment to a rehabilitation program for continued treatment. Rehabs are residential programs that vary 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.

From there, outpatient mental health, drug and alcohol counseling, and community supports can be utilized to maintain abstinence from the substance as you reintegrate into your 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 to find ways to modify them towards healthier alternatives.
  • Medication management – Methadone, 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 heroin’s effects are not felt.

If you are in need of treatment for heroin abuse, call 1-888-744-0069 to gain more information regarding your substance and treatment options.

Am I Addicted?

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

Resources, Articles and More Information

For more information, see the following articles:

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Amanda Lautieri is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers and an addiction content expert for DrugAbuse.com. She holds a bachelor's degree and has reviewed thousands of medical articles on substance abuse and addiction.
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