The Effects of Heroin Use
Is Heroin Harmful?
Continued use of heroin can bring devastation to both physical and mental health, and is likely to culminate in a number of social and legal ramifications for the user.
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 equate with pure, 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 use, heroin 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 main contributors to its harmful nature. They are also factors that lead to the addictive nature of heroin. Continued use of heroin can bring devastation to both physical and mental health, and is likely to culminate in a number of social and legal ramifications for the user.
Heroin's Extreme Dangers
The harmful effects of heroin are made quite apparent when investigating the number of overdose deaths that this drug is responsible for. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- Overdose deaths from heroin have almost quintupled from 2001 to 2013.
- Rates of overdose have increased at higher rates from 2010 to 2013.
- Men are more likely to die from heroin overdose, but rates of female overdose are increasing since 2010.
Short Term Effects of Heroin Use
This addictive nature of this substance is reinforced by its abilities in creating 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--and 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 in the first place.
The short-term effects will deviate slightly based on the method of delivery into the system, but the most common immediate analgesic (pain-relieving) and central nervous system depressant effects 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.
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 move between periods of 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 ingestion of higher and higher amounts, which can easily result in overdose.
Essentially, it's never a safe time to use heroin--first time users overdose; veteran users overdose.
As people use heroin over time, the pleasurable short-term effects become overshadowed by numerous unwanted side effects of the substance. 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.
- 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 or long term because dosing is impossible to measure due to difference 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 are compounded by using other substances with heroin, especially others that depress the body like alcohol or 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
- Decreased dental health marked by damaged teeth and gum swelling.
- Excoriated skin from scratching.
- Severe constipation.
- Increased susceptibility to disease from diminished immune system.
- Weakness and sedation.
- Poor appetite and malnutrition.
- Sleeping problems.
- Decrease in sexual functioning.
Some of the largest risks of long-term heroin use are the potential for irreversible impact to the liver or kidneys from damage or infectious diseases. The brain can also be adversely affected due to lack of oxygen.
People using heroin frequently must contend with problems from abscesses, bacterial infections, and infections of the heart valves. Pregnant women that use heroin are at risk of miscarriage, and place their children at risk of communicable disease, as well as 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.
Mental Health Concerns
Because heroin impacts the physical structures of the brain, mental health concerns can be encountered with continued use. They include:
- Depression with inability to feel happiness.
- Social isolation.
- Memory problems.
- Anxiety regarding continued use.
- Dependency and addiction.
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 a 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 withdrawal symptoms that can begin a few hours following the last use. Withdrawal symptoms of heroin can be quite severe and unpleasant to experience as they mimic many flu symptoms. They include:
- Restlessness and discomfort.
- Pounding or racing heartbeat.
- Pain/aches in the muscles and bones.
- Inability to sleep.
The symptoms can climax within one or two days but may persist for up to a week or more.
Am I Addicted?
If you're worried about your use of heroin, take the following assessment to determine the severity of the problem.
Heroin Withdrawal Treatment
Since withdrawal from heroin can be extremely uncomfortable and can prompt the individual in recovery to turn back to 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 like residential rehab, outpatient mental health or drug and alcohol therapy, medication management, and community supports to continue working towards establishing and maintaining recovery from heroin.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Heroin.
- Abadinsky, H., & Abadinsky, H. (2014). Drug use and abuse: A comprehensive introduction (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.