Updated on February 22, 2024
5 min read

Heroin Addiction: Dependence, Risks, and Treatment

Key Takeaways

Heroin is an illegal drug derived from morphine, with a high potential for addiction. As an opioid, it binds to the body’s internal opioid receptors to quickly induce a heightened euphoric effect, closely mimicking the intensity observed with hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Heroin is related to legal opioid drugs such as:

These drugs play a part in the opioid epidemic in America, responsible for thousands of deaths each year. Heroin can also come in three forms⁠—white, brown, and black tar heroin.

Over 902,000 Americans used heroin from 2019 to 2020.6 This represents approximately 1.5% of all illicit drug use among Americans aged 12 or older. The number of annual deaths resulting from heroin overdoses stands at 14,019.

What are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is an incredibly addictive substance, with 25% of first-time users finding themselves addicted. Addiction specifically targets the brain's regions that govern decision-making and self-control.

Common signs of heroin addiction include:

  • Depression
  • Poor decision-making
  • Loss of control
  • Neglect of personal relationships and isolation
  • A decline in fulfilling responsibilities at work and home
  • Visible fatigue and drifting off
  • Seemingly distant or “out of it”
  • Mood swings
  • Apathy
  • Lapses in memory
  • Decreased appetite and weight loss

People addicted to heroin may find themselves in financial or legal trouble from their efforts to obtain the drug. Some even describe heroin use as being as vital as breathing itself.

What are the Effects of Heroin Addiction?

Heroin's addictive nature leads many to long-term use, resulting in significant consequences. The long-term effects of heroin addiction include:

  • Insomnia
  • Constipation and stomach cramps
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Collapsed veins from damage caused by frequent injections
  • Damaged nose tissue and bone erosion from those who snort it frequently
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia
  • HIV, Hepatitis B, and C from IV drug use
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What Are The Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction?

The first and most crucial step to addiction recovery is having the desire to quit using drugs. While some people can do it independently, most success stories stem from receiving professional help.

Heroin addiction treatment is a multi-faceted approach. Fortunately, many tools are readily available to end heroin addiction.

Potential treatment options you can try include:

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What Are The Dangers of Heroin Use?

The dangers of heroin use range from behavioral changes to health risks. A person can experience withdrawal, toxicity, and even death with heavy misuse of the drug.

As the brain adapts to the presence of heroin in the system, physical dependence occurs, and the body begins to need the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms. With continuous heroin use, tolerance develops, necessitating higher doses for the same effects over time.

What are the Signs of Heroin Withdrawal?

With its high potency, heroin can create a strong drug dependence. It can result in intense withdrawal effects if a person abruptly stops taking the drug.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Profuse sweating and clamminess
  • An intense craving for the drug
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps
  • Restless leg-like symptoms
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Hallucinations
  • Homicidal or suicidal thoughts

The severity of these symptoms depends on factors like your genetics, the amount of heroin you use, and how long you've been using it.

What is Heroin Toxicity?

Illegal vendors often cut and combine heroin with other hazardous substances. Unfortunately, people will often consume whatever they can obtain and unknowingly bring these toxins to their bodies.

A notable combination is known as "gray death." This drug combines heroin and potent opioids like fentanyl or other potent drugs, resulting in numerous side effects.

High heroin toxicity levels can cause severe symptoms, including:

  • Vomiting and stomach cramps
  • Slurred speech and loss of essential motor functions
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow or non-existent pulse
  • Pin-point-shaped pupils
  • Blue lips and fingertips
  • Cold to the touch
  • Clammy skin
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizure

Can Heroin Use Lead to HIV and Hepatitis?

Intravenous heroin users face severe risks of HIV and hepatitis since sharing needles puts individuals at risk of contracting these diseases. Track marks, the visible scars from frequent injections, can also become infected, leading to further health complications.

Besides the risk of contracting HIV, the additives found in heroin, such as sugar, powdered milk, and starch, can block veins and impede blood flow to the brain and major arteries. This can cause lasting and substantial harm.

Can You Overdose from Heroin?

When heroin overwhelms your body, an overdose can occur. In a heroin overdose, essential neurons in the brain become suppressed, leading to dangerously slowed or halted breathing. The lack of oxygen can seriously affect the brain and other vital organs.

Getting these emergency medical services are crucial:

  • Life support
  • Intubation
  • Mechanical ventilation
  • Airway management
  • Close monitoring

If you or someone you know is experiencing a heroin overdose, contact emergency medical services immediately to prevent severe damage or even death. 

Can You Die from Heroin?

Untreated heroin addiction can result in fatal overdoses. High amounts of heroin can harm the heart and lungs, causing significant respiratory depression.

Respiratory depression can slow the heart rate to a life-threatening extent. Without prompt medical intervention, survival becomes unlikely.

There were over 80,411 reported opioid-involved overdose deaths in 2021. This is a disastrously high increase from the previous year, which incurred 68,630 deaths.7

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Updated on February 22, 2024

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