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Effects of Heroin Use: Short-Term, Long-Term, Side Effects, and Treatment

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Is Heroin Harmful?

Heroin is the name for a modified version of morphine that is a very addictive and illegal opioid drug.

The drug is available on the illicit market in a number of different varieties, with purer product tending to occur in white powder form. White powder doesn’t always signify purity, however, as heroin can be mixed with other white substances such as sugars, powdered milk, starches, and quinine—the latter a bitter compound that has fever-reducing and pain-relieving properties. These adulterated powdered products will appear more yellowish or brownish, on average. Another commonly distributed version—known as black tar heroin—appears as a black, sticky substance.

Heroin may be smoked, snorted, or injected. Regardless of the type of heroin used, the drug acts quickly in the body to elicit its dramatic results.

In short, heroin is very harmful. The speed and intense effects of the substance are the main contributors to its harmful nature. They are also factors that lead to the addictiveness of heroin. Continued use of heroin can cause devastation to both physical and mental health, and it is likely to culminate in a number of social and legal ramifications for the user.

Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

The addictive nature of this substance is reinforced by its ability to create intensely pleasurable feelings. Heroin accomplishes this by binding to opioid receptors in the body. Once the chemical interaction has taken place, the affected nerve cells are prompted to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a special molecule which is important in mediating feelings of pleasure that are rewarding to the user. It’s these sensations of reward that can kickstart and later reinforce a growing addiction, as the user continually seeks to repeat the behavior—in this case, heroin use—that lead to them feeling good.

The short-term effects of heroin will vary slightly based on the method of delivery into the system, but the most common immediate analgesic (pain-relieving) and central nervous system depressant effects of heroin are:

  • A “rush,” which is a strong increase in euphoric feelings.
  • Feelings of being warm and flushed during the “rush.”
  • Heavy sensation in the extremities.
  • Reduced sensation of pain.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Sedation.
  • Lethargy.

The pleasurable feelings related to the “rush” will only be felt for a few minutes, with more lasting feelings of sedation persisting for a few hours afterward. The duration of all effects will be dependent on the purity, dose, and route of administration—e.g. if the drug was snorted, smoked, or injected. Throughout the heroin high, the user may shift between being awake and asleep, referring to as “nodding.”

The high from heroin will decrease with continued use as the user becomes increasingly tolerant of the drug. The onset of tolerance frequently promotes the ingestion of greater and greater amounts, which can easily result in overdose.


Side Effects of Heroin Use

As people use heroin over time, the pleasurable short-term effects of the drug become overshadowed by numerous unwanted physiological and psychological side effects. Frequently, this occurs because the body adapts to the heroin in the system and takes action to counterbalance the effects. The side effects of heroin use include:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Grogginess.
  • Confusion.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Itchy skin.
  • Miotic or constricted pupils.
  • Light sensitivity.
  • Lower than normal body temperature.
  • Slowed respiration.
  • Slowed heart rate.
  • Cyanotic (bluish) hands, feet, lips, etc.

The risk of death from overdose is a concern for people using heroin in the short and long term because dosing is impossible to measure due to variations in purity. Essentially, it’s never a safe time to use heroin—first-time users overdose; veteran users overdose.

Many of the complications and side effects of heroin are compounded by using other substances alongside it—especially those that depress the body, such as alcohol and sedatives. The combined effects can lead to dangerously slow breathing, lack of oxygen to the brain, heart problems, coma, and death.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

There is a wide range of effects caused by long-term heroin use. People who use heroin for long periods of time may experience:

  • Deteriorated dental health—marked by damaged teeth and gum swelling.
  • Excoriated skin from scratching.
  • Severe constipation.
  • Increased susceptibility to disease from a diminished immune system.
  • Weakness and sedation.
  • Poor appetite and malnutrition.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Decrease in sexual functioning.

Some of the greatest risks of long-term heroin use are irreversible liver and kidney problems from damage or infectious diseases. The brain can also be adversely affected due a to lack of oxygen.

People using heroin frequently must contend with problems caused by abscesses, bacterial infections, and infections of the heart valves. Pregnant women who use heroin are at risk of miscarriage and place their children at risk of communicable disease, as well as of being addicted to the drug from birth.

Additionally, someone addicted to heroin will likely experience numerous personal consequences, such as financial issues, relationship turmoil, school or employment troubles, and legal penalties.

Heroin Dependence

One of the most dangerous aspects of heroin is its ability to elicit both tolerance and physiologic dependence in the user in a short amount of time. Dependence is a physical phenomenon. When someone is gripped by heroin dependency, they will feel uncomfortable and sick without the substance in their system. This occurs because the body has become so accustomed to the heroin that its absence is unusual.

Dependence on heroin is further marked by the expression of heroin withdrawal symptoms—also known as dope sickness symptoms—which can begin a few hours following the last use. Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe and unpleasant to experience and they mimic many flu symptoms. Symptoms include:

  • Restlessness and discomfort.
  • Pounding or racing heartbeat.
  • Anxiety.
  • Shaking.
  • Sweating.
  • Shivering.
  • Pain/aches in the muscles and bones.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Inability to sleep.

Symptoms can climax within 1 or 2 days, but they may persist for up to a week or more.

Am I Addicted to Heroin?

If you’re worried about your use of heroin, take the following assessment to determine the severity of the problem.

Heroin Assessment Test

Heroin Withdrawal Treatment Types

Since withdrawal from heroin can be extremely uncomfortable and can prompt the individual in recovery to go back to using the drug, professional treatment is frequently recommended. Oftentimes, a period of detoxification is needed at the onset of treatment to manage symptoms and maintain comfort while the remainder of the substance leaves the body. At times, the medical team will administer medications to ease the process. Typically, detox is completed on an inpatient basis so that a medical team can be present at all times.

Following the detoxification process, the recovering heroin addict can be referred to a number of treatment options, such as inpatient rehab, outpatient mental health or drug and alcohol therapy, medication management, and community supports to continue working towards establishing and maintaining recovery from heroin.

Find Heroin Addiction Treatment Programs

If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, help is available and recovery is possible. Professional treatment can start anyone battling a substance use problem on the path to a healthier and happier life. Rehab programs 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 rehab facilities. Many state government websites will 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 treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. For helpful advice, information, or admissions, please contact a caring AAC representative free at .

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