Signs & Effects of Heroin Abuse

Red River Hospital helps individuals struggling with heroin addiction build a strong foundation for long-term recovery. Serving Wichita Falls, TX, Red River is the leading provider of heroin addiction treatment.

Understanding Heroin

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

Heroin is a highly addictive, illegal opiate that is made from poppy plant resin and synthesized from morphine. It is typically sold as a white to dark brown powder that is cut with other substances, including other harmful drugs, sugar, starch, or poisons. This form of heroin is usually snorted or smoked and may be more appealing to users because it eliminates injection drug use. Another form of heroin is a black sticky substance, known as black tar, is often dissolved, diluted, and then injected into veins, muscles, or under the skin.

When used, heroin delivers a high that produces immediate effects on the body. The high associated with heroin use has the potential to last for hours and produces feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and detachment from surroundings. However, while the high is seen as pleasurable, once it wears off, individuals become drowsy for several hours, their mental functioning is cloudy, and heart function slows down. After prolonged use, an individual will develop a tolerance and will need to use more and more of the drug in order to produce the same effects of the initial high. Additionally, prolonged heroin use leads to serious health risks and, without proper treatment, heroin abuse can ultimately lead to overdose or even death.


Heroin statistics

With the number of users almost doubling since the mid-2000s, heroin use is on the rise. Moreover, the number of heroin-related deaths increased by 45% towards the beginning of the 2010s.  It is estimated that 9.2 million people worldwide use heroin. In the United States, opiates (predominantly heroin) make up 18% of the population who enter treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

The specific causes of heroin addiction can vary person to person. However, research has shown that a combination of various factors can play into why a person develops an addiction to heroin. Some of these causes may include:

Genetic: Several researchers believe that genetics contribute to whether or not a person is susceptible to drug addiction. Individuals who have first degree relatives with substance abuse problems are at an increased risk for developing an addiction should they ever use. Moreover, there are certain personality traits that could render a person vulnerable to developing a substance abuse problem.

Physical: Heroin addiction causes the structure and the functioning of the brain to change. It causes the brain’s communication system to become disrupted, disturbing the way that nerve cells send, receive, and process information. As these changes occur, people begin to lose self-control and are unable to stop using the drug.

Environmental: People with early exposure to drug addiction are at risk of learning that drug abuse is a way to cope with stressful situations in their life. Additionally, experiencing traumatic life events can trigger a person to turn to drugs as a means of coping with distressing emotions.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Lack of support system
  • Preexisting mental health disorder
  • Increased levels of stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • History of trauma

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Depending on the severity of a person’s addiction to heroin, there are a variety of signs and symptoms that will be present in a person using the drug. A person abusing heroin may present with some, or all, of the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Unexplained hostility
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants in warmer weather (so as not to rouse suspicion on the presence of track marks / injection sites)
  • Unclear speech
  • Increased isolation from friends and family
  • Lying about use of drugs
  • Desperate need for money

Physical symptoms:

  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Track marks, injection sites
  • Itching
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Runny nose

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Decrease in good decision-making
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Disorientation
  • Inability to communicate effectively
  • Poor problem-solving

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depressive symptoms
  • Irregular mood
  • Anxiety


Effects of heroin addiction

There are several serious effects of long-term heroin use that can occur. In addition to the toll heroin takes on an addict’s physical well-being, heroin can also take hold of every other aspect of a person’s life. Some of these long-term effects can include:

  • Interaction with the legal system
  • Loss of employment
  • Social isolation
  • Homelessness
  • Financial ruin
  • Exposure to infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, HCV
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

Because drug use alters a person’s brain chemistry, addiction to drugs can render a person more susceptible to other mental disorders. These disorders can include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety
  • Other substance abuse disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal and overdose

Withdrawal from heroin: When someone has become physically dependent upon heroin and then abruptly stops using, he or she will experience symptoms of withdrawal. Some of the effects of heroin withdrawal may include:

  • Cravings for heroin
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Involuntary muscle movements
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Inability to rest or sleep

Overdose from heroin: Heroin overdose occurs when a person consumes too much heroin at one time, is exposed to a purity level of the drug that the person is not accustomed to, or when a dosage of heroin contains other toxic chemicals or drugs. Unfortunately, if a person is overdosing and medical attention is not sought, the result could be fatal. Some indications that an individual may be suffering a heroin overdose include:

  • Labored breathing
  • Seizures
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weak pulse
  • Coma
  • Spasms of the gastrointestinal tract

In the event that these occur, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible so as to prevent further damage to the addict’s health, and to prevent untimely death.

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I was treated with respect and staff showed me love, and understanding from day one till leaving out the door! I received courage, motivation, open eyes, and my heart. Thank you staff, for bringing me back to life.

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