Heroin Addiction: Treatment, Signs, Symptoms, and Risks

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On April 14, 2024

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 18, 2023

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Heroin is one of the most dangerous drugs in the world. It has been a popular street drug for many years, and it is infamous for being extremely addictive. It is also associated with various health issues in the body and brain.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid synthesized from morphine, which is a natural opioid extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants. Opioids include morphine and painkillers like oxycodone. They are one of the most effective painkillers in the world, but they are also some of the most addictive substances available.

Heroin is made from morphine, which in turn is made from the sticky latex sap of poppy plants. While morphine is used in medical settings to reduce pain after surgery and for cancer patients, heroin has no medical use. In 2021, over 11% of all fatal opioid overdoses involved heroin.[1]

Heroin is a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has no medical use and has a high potential for abuse. It goes by many names on the street, such as boy scout cookies, speedball, smack, dope, junk, and white horse. It is difficult to overcome heroin dependence without attending a substance use disorder rehab center.

Side Effects of Heroin

Opioids influence the brain’s pleasure centers, including important neurotransmitters like the “feel-good” hormone dopamine. As this part of the brain is stimulated, most feel intense euphoria and reduced or no pain.

This euphoria is followed by a “crash,” in which most feel unwell and depressed. These negative effects can increase heroin use or dosage to repeat the positive effects.

Heroin also causes various mood changes, like irritability, depression, anxiety, and paranoia. It can also activate physical symptoms, such as weight loss due to appetite suppression, skin changes, and poor oral hygiene.

How is Heroin Taken?

Most people who use heroin inject it. Heroin, in the form of powder or small chunks, is often dissolved in water and sometimes then heated on a metal spoon before being injected. This creates an immediate euphoria since the drug bypasses the digestive system and directly enters the bloodstream. This is a dangerous way to take heroin and can lead to fatal accidental overdose.

Heroin is also snorted in powder form. This also causes an immediate euphoria, and it can be just as dangerous as injecting the substance. Others may try smoking chunks of heroin, which also has rapid onset effects.

Statistics on Heroin Use, Misuse, and Addiction

More than 9,000 people died of heroin overdoses in 2021.[2] Fortunately, this number is lower than the deaths from previous years, which were often more than 10,000. The trend of heroin use has been declining over recent years since its peak in 2016 to 2017. Yet heroin use is still a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

While many people try to overcome their addictions on their own, they often end up reverting back to old habits. Professional heroin addiction treatment remains one of the most effective methods for overcoming this problem. Treatment equips you with practical coping skills to overcome substance use and deal with life in more productive ways.

Effects of Heroin Abuse

Using heroin will destroy your body in different ways. It will ruin many of your internal organs, especially your lungs, heart, and liver. It will also change certain structures in your brain. This can cause permanent brain damage in those who have used this substance for many years.

Many people experience memory loss, trouble thinking, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty putting together words. Some may have mood swings and become violent for seemingly no reason. Others may isolate themselves from their friends and family, and they may steal from others to buy more heroin. This addiction also makes it hard to keep a job and maintain close relationships.

Can You Overdose on Heroin?

Yes. Heroin is a dangerous drug commonly associated with overdose due to its high potency. Many people who use heroin for the first time accidentally overdose because they don’t know how much their body can take. This can have fatal consequences and lead to severe organ or brain damage.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Overdose

The most common sign that someone has overdosed on heroin is that their breathing has become very shallow or it has stopped entirely.[3] If a person is without oxygen for long enough, they could sustain severe brain damage or die.

Other signs include coma, a slow and faint heartbeat, and death. Most people who overdose are unresponsive, but those who are still awake will be confused and may feel nauseous or have stomach pain.

What to do if you suspect someone is overdosing on Heroin:

An overdose can be fatal, so it is important to call 911 right away. The faster that person gets treatment, the better their chance of a positive outcome. Don’t leave the person’s side until the medical team arrives.

Dangers of Long-Term Heroin Use

Many long-term heroin users develop liver disease. This can be fatal if it becomes severe enough. Other dangers include heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, HIV, hepatitis, collapsed veins, and scarring.

Some people develop chronic illnesses, pneumonia, seizures, difficulty breathing, and kidney disease. Many people who regularly use heroin for several years do not survive their dependence.

Mixing Heroin with Other Drugs

Mixing heroin with other substances, particularly depressants such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, greatly increases the risk of life-threatening complications, including respiratory depression, coma, and death.

Heroin Addiction and Abuse

Like any other substance, heroin use disorder is diagnosable (by a psychiatric provider) in someone who exhibits two or more of the official criteria set forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).[4]

  • Reckless substance use
  • Social issues related to substance use
  • Neglecting responsibilities due to substance use
  • Legal issues due to substance use
  • Experiencing withdrawal when the dose is reduced or stopped
  • Developing tolerance
  • Increasing amounts or taking more frequency
  • Repeated attempts to stop in the past
  • Substance use and planning are time-consuming
  • Experiencing physical and psychological issues due to substances
  • Neglecting usual activities to use substances
  • Cravings for the substance

Signs of Addiction to Heroin

Experiencing withdrawal is a telltale sign that a person is experiencing heroin addiction. Withdrawal symptoms include sweating, nausea, vomiting, and pain. Other signs include intense cravings, irritability, and difficulty thinking or speaking.

Heroin Addiction and Mental Health

Short-term heroin use can lead to mood changes and sometimes violent behavior. Long-term heroin use can cause paranoia, anxiety, cognitive decline, and depression. These mental health challenges can make it more difficult to seek treatment and pursue recovery.

Cutting Agents Used for Heroin

Heroin is often adulterated with various substances such as powdered milk, starch, or quinine, though more harmful adulterants like fentanyl have also been reported. Adulterants in heroin can increase the risk of overdose and other adverse health effects, making its use even more dangerous.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

For more severe substance use disorders, treatment often starts with detox. This service offers a safe and monitored space for you to navigate withdrawal as harmful toxins leave the body.

Residential treatment is the next level of care and offers distraction-free treatment in a safe and supportive environment. Extended care or PHP programs offer full-time treatment with schedule flexibility ahead of attending Intensive Outpatient services or aftercare planning.

The full continuum of care may last anywhere from a few months to more than a year and will include evidence-based therapies, group support, and relapse prevention training.

Therapies Used in Heroin Addiction Treatment

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Art Therapy
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI)
  • Psychotherapy
  • Group therapy

Heroin Use and Co-Occurring Disorders

Mental health conditions do not necessarily cause substance use disorders, nor do substance use disorders cause mental health disorders. However, each can exacerbate the symptoms of the other, making it harder to pursue sobriety. It’s important to treat each disorder with effective modalities to promote lasting recovery and prevent relapse.

Drugs Used in Heroin Withdrawal Management

Methadone and lofexidine are the most common medications prescribed to treat heroin withdrawal. These substances can help reduce the pain withdrawal and lower the risk of relapse.

If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, reach out to our NYC rehab facility. We are here to provide the support you need during this challenging time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Anyone Get Addicted to Heroin?

Yes, anyone who uses heroin can develop a dependence on the drug, although individuals with existing substance use disorders or mental health issues are at an elevated risk.

Who Uses Heroin?

Individuals across various demographics use heroin. Those with a history of using other illegal drugs or who have misused prescription painkillers are at a higher risk of beginning to use heroin.

Is Heroin Illegal?

Yes, heroin is illegal and is classified as a highly addictive Schedule I substance with no medical use.

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[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 23). Heroin. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/overdose-prevention/about/heroin.html on May 19, 2023.

[2] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023b, March 31). Drug overdose death rates. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates on May 19, 2023.

[3] NIDA. 2022, December 16. Heroin DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/overview on 2023, May 19

[4]Hasin, D. S., O’Brien, C. P., Auriacombe, M., Borges, G., Bucholz, K., Budney, A., Compton, W. M., Crowley, T., Ling, W., Petry, N. M., Schuckit, M., & Grant, B. F. (2013, August). The American journal of psychiatry. DSM-5 criteria for Substance Use Disorders: Recommendations and Rationale. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767415/ on May 19, 2023