Heroin Addiction – Abuse, Effects, Treatment & Recovery

What is heroin?

Heroin is derived from morphine—a natural substance found in the resin of the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Originally synthesized by C.R. Alder Wright in 1874, it has since been used as an opioid painkiller. When administered intravenously by injection, heroin is two to four times more potent than morphine.

Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Illicit heroin is sometimes available in freebase form—a matte-white powder. Because of its lower boiling point, the freebase form is also smokable. As with many other opioids, it is used as both a legal, medically prescribed drug and a recreational drug, in which case the user is seeking pleasure and euphoria.

Heroin is typically injected into a vein, but can also be smoked, snorted, or inhaled. Some people mix it with crack cocaine, called speedballing. On streets around the world, heroin is known by slang names such as:

  • H
  • Horse
  • Hero
  • Dope
  • Smack
  • Boy
  • Brown
  • Black
  • Tar
  • Junk
  • Skag
  • Snow
  • China white
  • Beast
Play Video

Heroin & drug abuse

An individual may try illegal drugs for many different reasons. They could be simply seeking a ‘high’, may become a victim of peer pressure, or be looking for an escape from their regular life. They may even be trying to self-medicate for mental health and behavioral health reasons, or due to mental illness such as stress disorders, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or cooccurring disorders.

When heroin is administered it enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors. These are located in many areas of the brain—especially those involved in feelings of pain, pleasure, controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.

Heroin is incredibly addictive. The human brain changes physically with repeated use, and individuals often use it in an attempt to recreate the initial high. With a daily dose, addiction will form, an illness of a type known as substance use disorders. Behavioral addictions are also common, as addicts build habits into their daily routine. A heroin dependent person will do everything they can to satisfy their cravings.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration define substance use disorders as recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs that cause clinically significant impairment to daily life activities.

How does someone get addicted to heroin?

The neurons in our brains naturally release endorphins, or ‘feel good’ chemicals, secreted throughout the central nervous system as a mechanism for pain relief. Endorphins also create a calming or sedating effect for our emotions and nerves throughout the body. These neurons have built-in opiate receptors that respond to certain types of drugs, including heroin.

The chemical makeup of heroin is similar to the endorphins created naturally in our brains, and it binds to the same available opiate receptors in the brain. For a regular user, this drug abuse will damage the brain’s ability to function normally.

Gradually, the brain becomes accustomed to the effects of drug use and addiction, requiring significantly higher doses to produce the same result—otherwise known as ‘tolerance’. Tolerance occurs after the brain creates more endorphin receptors in response to opioid exposure. The increase in receptors demands an increase in endorphins to feel the same effects. The endorphin-receptor system has now become unbalanced.

Drug abuse, such as that found with opioid addiction, lowers the body’s natural endorphin production levels while simultaneously increasing the number of receptors to bind with. When the demand for endorphins is high, but the supply is low, signs and symptoms of physical dependence or opioid addiction may begin to show. An individual using opioids now has to manage a physiological need for the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms and effects of heroin use

People who use heroin report feeling a rush of euphoria and extreme relaxation. A sense of sedation will occur, limbs will feel heavy, and users will feel like everything is perfectly OK. However, everything is not OK. With repeat use, a person will become physically addicted to opioids and begin to suffer from the true effects of this substance abuse.

Warning signs or symptoms of heroin use may include:

Continuing to use despite problems linked directly to their drug use.

  • Trying and failing to quit or cut down use.
  • Persistent cravings for the drug.
  • Building a tolerance—needing a higher dose to get the desired effect.
  • Shallow breathing/slow breathing.
  • Experiencing heroin withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.

Short-term effects of heroin use

From the first time someone uses heroin, they may experience the following symptoms while under the influence of the drug:

  • Reduced anxiety.
  • Relieved tension.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Apathy.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Warm flushing of the skin.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Severe itching.
  • Impaired mental function.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • ‘Nodding’, a back-and-forth state of being conscious and semiconscious.

Long-term effects of heroin abuse

Research is still underway on the long-term effects of heroin addiction on heroin abusers. Studies cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have shown the brain can lose white matter due to heroin use, which may affect decision-making, control over behavior, and responses to stressful situations.

People who use heroin over the long term may also develop:

  • Insomnia (inability to sleep).
  • Constipation and stomach cramping.
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia.
  • Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus).
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves.
  • Liver and/or kidney disease.
  • Weight loss.
  • Mental health disorders such as depression and antisocial personality disorder.
  • Those who inject heroin may suffer from collapsed veins.
  • Those who snort heroin may damage the tissue inside the nose.
  • Men may experience sexual dysfunction.
  • Women may experience irregular menstrual cycles.

Other potential effects of heroin use

Street heroin can often contain additives and impurities that illegal manufacturers add (or ‘cut’ with) to increase their profit margins. This could include substances such as:

  • Baking soda
  • Crushed over-the-counter painkillers
  • Talcum powder
  • Laundry detergent
  • Caffeine
  • Rat poison
  • Sucrose (sugar)
  • Starch
  • Powdered milk
  • Other drugs like Fentanyl

These additives can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage. Sharing needles can also increase the risk factors associated with contracting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Heroin overdose

Any drug overdose should be treated as a medical emergency and emergency services should be called straight away. Emergency responders will often carry medicine like Naloxone that can treat an opioid overdose by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of heroin.

When people overdose on heroin, their breathing often slows or stops. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term mental health effects and effects on the nervous system, including coma and permanent brain damage.

Most people who overdose are already addicted, but some people overdose the very first time they try it. Many people who use heroin also abuse prescription pain management medicines and other drugs. They may also abuse alcohol. The combination of substance abuse can be very dangerous.

Heroin overdose in the United States

Substance use disorders in the United States have been growing since 2007 and overdoses have risen sharply in recent years. In 2021, the CDC reported that there had been over 100,000 drug overdose deaths recorded over a 12-month period. It was a 28.5% increase on the 78,056 overdose deaths during the same period the year before.

Heroin and related opioids such as Fentanyl are significant contributors to these statistics. As heroin is sold illegally, so there is no control over the quality or strength of the drug. It is also sometimes mixed with other poisonous substances which can lead to overdose.

There has also been a change in the demographics of heroin use. It is now believed that addiction to prescription pain relievers is the gateway to heroin use for many people. This is because the street price of heroin is often cheaper than that of prescription opioids. If an addict can no longer get their prescription drug legally, they may turn to heroin as an alternative.

Prescription pain medications & heroin

After heroin was deemed an illicit substance, pharmaceutical companies began to manufacture opioid painkillers for use as medication. These prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, have effects similar to heroin. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that the abuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use.

Once doctors realized that these medications also came with a high risk for dependency, they became increasingly hesitant to prescribe these opioids. However many individuals found themselves reliant on prescription opioids for pain relief or to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Those that can’t get these painkillers legally often turn to heroin as a cheaper, more accessible alternative—despite the risk of overdose, adverse effects, or even death.

Regardless of how an individual begins using heroin, our addiction treatment center ANR Clinic is here to assist with our quick and effective withdrawal treatment. Accelerated Neuro-Regulation (ANR) eliminates future cravings by resolving the root cause for opioid dependency in the brain.

Contact ANR Clinic today for a heroin addiction treatment overview to learn more about our revolutionary, evidence-based care methods that minimize heroin withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin FAQ

Yes, heroin is a very addictive drug. It doesn’t take long to physically alter the brain, creating a perpetual cycle of demand and supply – also known as drug addiction. Abuse and addiction go hand in hand.

Addicts will need friendly intervention, medical detox, long-term behavioral therapy, accurate health information, and support from family and friends. There are many types of therapies. Professional referrals are recommended to find the best medical care during addiction treatment. ANR Clinic has helped 24,000+ patients worldwide overcome their opioid dependency easily using safe, effective, and humane opioid addiction treatment approaches.

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, call ANR clinic on 813 328-8513 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

People start using for various reasons, but in general, the user wishes to experience the pleasant numbing and euphoric effects. See ‘Symptoms and effects of heroin addiction’.
People who use heroin report feeling a rush of euphoria and extreme relaxation. A sense of sedation will occur, limbs will feel heavy, and users will feel like everything is perfectly OK. See ‘Symptoms and effects of heroin addiction’.
Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Illicit heroin is sometimes available in freebase form—a matte-white powder.
People can inject, sniff, snort, or smoke heroin. Some people mix heroin with crack cocaine, a practice called speedballing.
Yes, a person can overdose on heroin. A heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. Heroin overdoses have increased in recent years. See ‘Heroin overdose’.
Naloxone is a medicine that can treat an opioid overdose when given right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of opioid drugs. Sometimes more than one dose may be needed to help a person start breathing again, which is why it’s important to get the person to an emergency department or a doctor to receive additional health care if needed. See ‘Heroin overdose’. Other medications like buprenorphine are used during opioid use disorder treatment.
About Author

Schedule a FREE consultation with one of our physicians today

Become Opioid Free