In This Article
What is Heroin? How Does it Affect the Body?
Heroin (street name: smack, brown, horse, dope, junk) is a highly addictive, Schedule 1 narcotic derived from morphine, a psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical extracted from the resin of the opium poppy plant.1
The appearance of heroin is determined by how it is produced and what else it may constitute. Heroin may come in the form of white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance known as “black tar heroin.”
Heroin is an opioid and is categorized with prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, codeine, and hydrocodone. Heroin use for leisure has become more prevalent over the past years due to the misuse of prescription pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.2
People addicted to prescription medications often switch to heroin because it produces similar effects and is easily accessible in the streets.7
How Heroin Affects the Body
Heroin attaches to opioid receptors in the brain in the same way as other opioids do. This process helps reduce pain while also boosting dopamine release in the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes sensations of happiness.3 Because heroin is such a strong opioid, it induces high amounts of dopamine, producing a feeling of extreme pleasure, which reinforces the desire to continue using the drug.
Heroin is highly addicting due to its potency. Even those who have only used the substance a few times may become reliant and addicted to it. Tolerance to heroin may develop rapidly, so a person will need more of the drug to get the same euphoric benefits.
Heroin use may have a negative short and long-term effect on a person’s health and even alter how their brain works. It may also cause a reduction in white matter in the brain, affecting a person’s general cognition and memory.
The more heroin a person takes, the worse the physical and mental consequences become.
Short-term effects of heroin include:
- Dry mouth
- Severe itching
- Clouded thinking
- A temporary feeling of happiness
- Warm flushing skin
- Slowed heart rate
- Heaviness in the arms and legs
- Coma or dangerously slowed breathing (if mixed with alcohol)
Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) may occur if heroin is used during pregnancy. When heroin crosses the placenta and reaches the fetus during pregnancy, the infant becomes dependent on the drug.4
Excessive crying, fever, irritability, seizures, sluggishness, weight gain, tremors, diarrhea, vomiting, and death are some of the observable symptoms of NAS.
An individual who takes heroin for even a short time is still in danger of overdosing. This is because heroin directly affects the neurochemical activity in the brain that controls respiration and heart rate.5
Overdosing on heroin may result in a dangerously low heart rate and slowed or halted breathing, which may lead to coma and brain damage.
Long-term effects of heroin include:
- Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
- Nose tissue damage for those who sniff or snort
- Heart infection
- Stomach discomfort and constipation
- Liver and kidney disease
- Lung problems
- Mental health issues such as depression
- Sexual problems in men
- Altered menstrual cycle in women
Many of the chemicals in street heroin may be difficult to dissolve into the body, resulting in blockage of arteries leading to organs such as the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain.
Small patches of cells in these critical organs may get damaged or even die. Arthritis and other rheumatologic disorders may develop as a result of immune responses to these or other contaminants.
Sharing injection equipment or fluids may lead to hepatitis B and C, HIV, and a list of other blood-borne diseases, which drug users can then pass on to their sexual partners or even children.
How Long Does it Take to Feel Heroin’s Effects?
The quality of the drug and mode of delivery determines how long it will take to feel the effects and the intensity of the peaks. The effects of heroin administered into the body intravenously (by injection) should start around 20 seconds after injection. The effects last for approximately 4 hours.
If you smoke heroin, the high should last around 5 hours and peak approximately 10 minutes after inhalation. The most strong euphoric peaks should last approximately 2 hours, and the long-term effects should fade after about 5 hours. In the end, the euphoria and lightness fade off, leaving you weary and disconnected.
How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?
Heroin may be detected in the system for up to seven days, depending on the kind of drug test performed. On the other hand, some people may completely eliminate the opioid from their systems in as few as two days or less.
Heroin has a relatively short half-life — three to six minutes. During this period, the body breaks down heroin into morphine and 6-acetylmorphine. Because of how fast heroin is metabolized, most drug tests identify these two compounds rather than heroin itself.
The half-life of morphine is two to seven hours, whereas 6-acetylmorphine has a half-life of up to 25 minutes. It takes several half-lives for a substance to leave the body entirely.
The detection timeline of heroin varies depending on the drug testing method used.
Below are the common tests for heroin detection:
Urine testing is the most common technique for detecting drugs in someone’s system. A urine test may detect heroin in a person’s system up to three days after the last time they used it. Urine testing is simple, inexpensive, and safe, and many institutions use it.
Heroin can be detected in the saliva within two minutes of ingestion. For around 30 minutes after smoking heroin, saliva concentration is higher than blood concentration. It then drops to the same level as blood concentration. Because of how quickly heroin metabolizes, saliva tests aren’t as helpful as blood tests.
Hair tests can identify drug usage for considerably longer periods than other kinds of tests. Depending on hair length and frequency of use, a hair follicle test is capable of detecting heroin in the body system for up to 90 days after the last use.
Blood samples provide a precise indication of how much of a particular drug is present in the body when the sample is collected. Because heroin exits the body so quickly, blood tests aren’t often used to determine if the drug has been used recently.
Depending on the delivery route, it may take as little as five hours for the drug to become undetectable in body fluids.
Factors That Influence How Long Heroin Stays in Your System
The length of time heroin remains in the body varies from person to person and is determined by a number of factors, including the quality of the drug and the quantity consumed.
The following factors influence how long heroin remains in the body:
- Individual factors: These include height and weight, metabolism, age, genetics, and hydration levels.
- Liver and kidney function: Heroin is metabolized mainly in the liver. In this case, heroin will remain in the body longer if the liver is impaired. Although the kidneys metabolize significantly less heroin, individuals with poor renal function may have a more challenging time clearing it from their system.
- Amount consumed: With moderate usage, heroin will only persist in the body for one or two days, but with heavy, chronic use, it may be detected in a urine test for almost a week.
- Drug quality: Because heroin is illegal, there is minimal uniformity in its purity. Some dosages may be purer and stronger, lengthening the time it takes for the drug to be expelled. The rate at which heroin is metabolized may also be affected by interactions with other drugs.
Does Type of Administration Affect Heroin Detection Time?
Yes. How heroin is administered (e.g., through injection, snorting, or smoking) affects specific tests’ detection time. For instance, injected heroin is detectable in the body within an hour using a saliva test, whereas smoked heroin is detectable for up to five hours.
What Happens if a Person Stops Using Heroin?
If a person quits heroin, they will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. The more time a person uses the substance, the more pronounced and severe the withdrawal symptoms become.
Because heroin is so strong, even someone who has only used it once or twice may experience withdrawal symptoms after using it. Withdrawal symptoms are a common cause of continued use.
Recovering heroin users are likely to experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS), which include poor sleep, poor concentration, increased anxiety, depression, panic attacks, fatigue, hypersensitivity, irritability, mood swings, restlessness, and memory loss, depending on the level and length of use.6 PAWS may persist for about 18 to 24 months.
Common Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms & Dangers
Heroin users experience withdrawal symptoms between 6 and 12 hours following their last heroin injection. Withdrawal from heroin may be similar to withdrawal from prescription opiates. Withdrawal occurs quicker with heroin than with other opiate painkillers because it exits the user’s system faster.
Some withdrawal symptoms of heroin include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle aches
- Dilated pupils
- Cold flashes
The physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal are unpleasant and typically peak three to four days after a person stops using. These signs and symptoms may appear at any time after usage, although they are most common during the first 12 hours.
Sadly, withdrawal symptoms may persist for up to a week. Many individuals see an improvement in their symptoms around a week after their last drug use, although heavy users who have been abusing drugs for a long time may still be experiencing symptoms months later.
Symptoms of Heroin Use & Addiction
The symptoms of heroin addiction vary depending on the user’s genetic composition, the quantity of substance taken, the frequency of usage, and the drug’s dependence.
The following are some of the most frequent signs and symptoms of heroin addiction:
- Uncontrolled cravings for the drug
- Agitation and irritability
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Lying about drug use
- Weight loss
- Scabs or bruises due to picking at the skin
- Decreased attention to personal hygiene
- Possession of syringes, burnt spoons, glass pipes, and shoelaces
- Neglecting school/home/work responsibilities
- Apathy and lack of motivation
- Warm, flushed skin
- Extreme itching
- Shortness of breath
- Constricted or small pupils
If you or someone you care about is suffering from heroin addiction, and you have observed the symptoms above, you should get professional help as soon as possible.
Treatment Options for Heroin Use & Addiction
It is possible to assist a heroin addict even if they are not ready, but it is preferable to seek help when a person is ready to change their lives. Many different treatment programs are available, and they are tailored to the specific needs of each drug user seeking assistance and support to reclaim control of their lives.
Here are some common treatment options:
- Medically-supervised heroin detoxification (medical detoxification or medical detox) is the safest and most successful method to break a physical heroin addiction. Detoxification allows a person to restart their life and eliminate the substance from their system, but it is just the first step in addiction therapy. Inpatient and outpatient heroin detox treatments are available in drug rehab facilities.
- Inpatient detox is receiving 24-hour addiction care in an addiction treatment facility, increasing the chances of recovering from moderate to severe heroin addiction. On the other hand, patients in outpatient rehabilitation programs undergo addiction therapy but are not compelled to live within the facility. Outpatient clients may remain at home and keep up with their regular activities. However, their chances of staying sober aren’t as good unless they’re committed.