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Understanding Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction has skyrocketed in recent years. While the drug is not new, there is a greater need for understanding heroin addiction and the ways to treat it.

Heroin is a highly addictive illicit substance derived from morphine, a drug that is extracted from the seed of an opium poppy plant. These opium poppy plants are mostly grown in Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Mexico, and other regions of Central and South America. Heroin, which can be snorted, injected, or smoked, has no legitimate medical purpose and is only used as an illicit drug. The drug is also known by such street names as “H,” “horse,” and “smack.” It is sold either in powder form or in a sticky, gummy form referred to as black tar.1

Heroin addiction can also be fatal. Heroin use has resulted in an epidemic of overdose deaths since the early 2000s. Data gathered by State and Federal agencies indicate that, in 2017 and 2018, around 15,000 people/year died of a heroin overdose. This represents a 5-fold increase in heroin overdose deaths since 2010, when approximately 3,100 people died of a heroin overdose.2

Short Term Effects of Heroin Use

Heroine can affect a person immediately after use. These short-term effects of heroin use can include many signs and symptoms, including: 1

  • A euphoric rush or high.
  • Flushed skin.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Severe itching.
  • Reduced mental awareness.
  • Sharp decrease in motor skills.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Death by overdose.

How quickly one feels the short-term effects of heroin use and how long they last depend on how pure the drug is and how it is used. When a person smokes or injects it, they tend to get addicted more quickly, as smoking and injecting heroin causes it to reach the brain faster. The itching, nausea, and vomiting described by some heroin users do not usually last long and occur less frequently as a person uses the drug, so these feelings are not a deterrent to ongoing use in many people.3

Long Term Effects of Heroin Use

The long-term effects of heroin use can have many negative physical and behavioral consequences. Some of these effects include:1

  • Increased tolerance, which requires a person to use more and more heroin to get the same effects as before. This can increase the risk of overdose.
  • Physical dependence, which results in symptoms of physical withdrawal, such as vomiting, shaking, and sweating when a person stops taking heroin.
  • Emotional disorders, such as depression and effects on a person’s ability to regulate behavior or deal with stressful situations.
  • The risk of death due to an overdose.
  • Poor decision-making abilities.

Additional long-term effects of heroin use include various form of medical conditions, such as:3

  • Miscarriage.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Heart problems.
  • Brain damage.
  • Pneumonia.
  • HIV and Hepatitis C in those who inject heroin.

Why Is Heroin So Addictive?

Just why is heroin so addictive? Heroin is an opioid, and thus, has a strong affinity for the opioid receptors in the body, which control feelings of pain and pleasure. When a person uses heroin, the drug attaches to the person’s opioid receptors, igniting a euphoric rush which they want to experience over and over.1

Heroin is also fairly cheap and readily available, making it much easier to become addicted. 4 Unfortunately, in the past 10 to 15 years, many people were over-prescribed opioid painkillers, which led to subsequent opioid addictions. As states began to crack down on prescriptions for painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percocet, or Oxycodone, people who were physically dependent on them began searching for alternatives. Many people turned to heroin as a cheap, easily available substitute.4 Research also indicates that heroin addiction impairs one’s brain functioning over time, leading to difficulty for a person to stop using heroin.5

Signs of Heroin Addiction

A person struggling with heroin addiction will experience both physical and behavioral symptoms. While the symptoms and signs of heroin addiction can be serious and life-threatening, the behavioral symptoms and signs of heroin addiction can lead to serious consequences for the person’s family, social, and occupational life roles.6  In this next section, you will learn about common signs of heroin addiction.

Physical Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Physical symptoms of heroin addiction and abuse include:6

  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Constricted pupils.
  • Sudden weight loss.
  • Changes in appearance.
  • Extreme drowsiness and nodding off.

Behavioral Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Behavioral symptoms of heroin addiction include:5

  • Depression.
  • Paranoia.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Secretive behavior.
  • Incessant lying.
  • Legal troubles.
  • Consistently taking risks to acquire or use heroin.

The behavioral symptoms of heroin addiction can be puzzling or distressing for the friends and family members of the affected person. It can be difficult to watch someone make choices that put them at risk of death, legal charges, or losing custody of children, and you may wonder why they cannot see how much harm they are causing themselves. Research studies have shown that these seemingly irrational decisions are partially the result of changes in brain functioning that occur when a person develops an addiction. While the mechanisms of neurological functioning are complex, heroin damages white matter in the brain and disrupts the pathways to the structures in the brain that control decision making. The areas of the brain that help a non-addicted person make choices and foresee future consequences of actions become damaged. While someone who isn’t addicted to heroin can think more logically, a person suffering from a heroin addiction only thinks about getting high, and simply cannot process their decisions in the same way.7

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

When you stop taking heroin after becoming physically dependent, you typically experience heroin withdrawal symptoms, which can be extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant. Some of these symptoms include:1

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Insomnia.
  • Agitation.
  • Anxiety.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Paranoia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Cramping.

If you or your loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, treatment is the best option to manage the symptoms of withdrawal.

Are You Struggling with Heroin Addiction?

As you read these symptoms of heroin addiction, do you recognize one or more of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one? Do you want to look for help, but are unsure of where to start? If you answered yes to either one of these questions, you should consider getting heroin addiction treatment for yourself or your loved one.

How American Addiction Centers Can Help

If you think that you or a loved one has a problem with heroin addiction, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. AAC is a leading provider of addiction treatment in the United States, with 8 locations throughout the country to treat you or a loved one. At AAC, treatment focuses not just on treating the addiction to heroin, but also on the underlying causes of addiction. Call our 24/7 free helpline today to speak to one of our compassionate staff members.

Not Sure About Heroin Addiction Treatment?

You may wonder if you need heroin addiction treatment and may be unsure of what heroin addiction treatment looks like or what to expect. Generally, heroin addiction has 3 major components. If you are interested in learning more about how treatment works, consider these three articles:


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Heroin.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Overdose death rates.
  3. Bauer, R.N., Southard, E.P., Kummerow, A.M. (2017). Heroin abuse: Nurses confronting a growing trend. MedSurg Nursing, 26 (4), 231-241.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Prescription opioids and heroin.
  5. Fareed, A. (2020). Evolution of opioid addiction as a brain disease from stigma to modern neurosciences. Journal of Addictive Diseases38(1), 84-87.
  6. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA:
  7. Verdejo-García, A., Pérez-García, M., & Bechara, A. (2006). Emotion, decision-making and substance dependence: a somatic-marker model of addiction.Current Neuropharmacology4(1), 17–31.