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Heroin Addiction: Signs and Effects of Heroin Abuse

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A heroin addict on a table

Heroin Overview

Heroin is an opiate that is highly addictive, which can oftentimes lead to overdoses that cause slow and shallow breathing, coma, or death.

One of the most addictive drugs available, heroin use has nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013 leading to over 8,200 deaths in the United States due to heroin-related overdose in 2013 alone. Nearly all demographics are at risk for the use and abuse of heroin; however, heroin use has more than doubled among adults ages 18-25 in the past 10 years.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

No one starts using heroin with the sole intention of becoming addicted to it. But, after using heroin many people find it hard to feel normal without using it. Signs of heroin use are typically separated into three categories: paraphernalia, appearance, and actions.

A person using heroin might have paraphernalia including:

  • Burnt spoons
  • Tiny plastic bags
  • Brownish or white powdery residue
  • Dark or sticky residue
  • Small glass pipes
  • Hypodermic needles or syringes
  • Rubber tubing
  • Aluminum foil or gum wrappers with burn marks
  • Straws or another plastic tubing with burn marks
  • Water pipes or other pipes

A person might be under the influence of heroin if they have:

  • Tiny pupils
  • Sleepy or heavy eyes
  • A tendency to nod off
  • Slow breathing
  • Flushed Skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Disorientation
  • Excessive skin picking or scratching
  • Cycles of hyper-alertness followed by suddenly nodding off or being tired
  • A droopy appearance as if they feel “heavy”
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Neglected grooming
  • Loss of appetite or not eating
  • Constipation
  • Nausea

Behavioral signs of someone using or addicted to heroin could include:

  • Worsening performance in school or work
  • Lying or deceptive behavior
  • Sudden changes in behavior or actions
  • Having a hostile attitude toward loved ones
  • Not making eye contact or avoiding eye contact
  • Loss of motivation and lack of goals
  • Stealing or borrowing money from loved ones
  • Arms covered with long sleeve shirt

What Happens to the Body from a Heroin Addiction?

Those who have used heroin describe the high as an extreme intense feeling of pleasure and well-being. Especially when injecting heroin, the “rush” comes from the drug reaching the brain so quickly. Highs can last from a few hours to about five. Those who have used or have become addicted to heroin can experience both short-term and long-term side effects.

Short-term effects can include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Poor mental functioning
  • Uncontrollable feelings of itching

Long-term effects of heroin can include:

  • Death
  • Coma
  • Lung damage
  • Heart damage
  • Kidney failure
  • Loss or deterioration of brain function
  • Seizures
  • Arthritis
  • Bacterial infections
  • Blood clots or tissue death
  • Chronic pneumonia

Because heroin is most often injected, users may also contract lifelong viral infections from dirty needles or syringes such as HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.

Understanding a Heroin Addiction

People use heroin for the purpose of getting “high”. After injection, snorting, or smoking, heroin connects to molecules in the central nervous system, which are called opioid receptors. Located throughout the body, opioid receptors manage perceptions of pain, pleasure, blood pressure, and breathing. Heroin, along with other opiates, essentially deadens pain and acts like powerful endorphins during this high.

The high can depend on the way the drug is administered. Most users experience a surge of euphoria, which is often called a “rush”. This is experienced with dry mouth, flushed skin, the sense of limbs feeling heavy, and poor mental functioning. This rush usually lasts only one to two minutes. Users who inject the drug usually go “on the nod”, which is a state of wakeful and drowsy. Users might also experience a time of drowsy or distance from the world, which can sometimes last between four and five hours.

So why do people get addicted to drugs like heroin? Due to the extreme euphoric sense that users experience, the short high is often why heroin addicts keep using the drug. Heroin is extremely addictive because it enters the brain so quickly. When heroin enters the body, it is converted into morphine and binds to opioid receptors allowing the user to experience the high. Because of this, even a single dose of heroin can start an addiction.

Heroin users have reported feeling an extreme sense of pleasure when using heroin. When injected, users can begin feeling the high within seconds when heroin starts to take over the brain.

With the increase in heroin usage, heroin has been perceived as a “fashionable” drug and has become easy to buy on the street. This combined with the extreme effects it has on the brain causes extreme addiction.

An Introduction to the Drug – Heroin

Heroin can be injected, smoked, or snorted; however, the drug is most commonly injected. Due to needle sharing, puts users at an increased risk of long-term viral infections including HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C. Needle sharing can put users at risk for bacterial infections.

What Does It Look Like and Where Does It Come From?

This highly addictive drug is derived from morphine, which is a naturally occurring substance extracted from certain species of poppy plant seedpods. When sold, heroin typically looks like a white or brownish powder that is often mixed with other substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine in order to dilute the drug. Heroin’s scientific name is diacetylmorphine. The chemical structure of heroin is similar to 6-acetyl morphine and morphine.

Street names for Heroin

  • Smack
  • Junk
  • Skag
  • China White
  • Black Tar
  • Mexican Brown

The drug comes from South America or Southeast Asia and in its original form is a bitter white powder. There is also a form of heroin known as “Black Tar” heroin, which is a sticky black substance similar to roofing tar. This version of heroin usually originates from Mexico and is then sold in the United States. The black color is a result of a crude processing method making the heroin “more pure”. Impure versions of heroin are typically dissolved or diluted in order to be injected into veins or muscles.

Common Drug Combinations

Usually when someone is using heroin, they are also abusing multiple other substances, particularly cocaine and prescription opioid painkillers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, people who use marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin. People who have used cocaine are 15 more times likely to be addicted to heroin. More dramatically, those who have used prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.

The main consequences of using heroin can be the user overdosing leading to a coma or even death. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In 2014, there were 47,055 lethal drug overdoses with 18,893 of those overdose deaths caused by prescription pain relievers and 10,574 deaths related to heroin.


Unfortunately, many heroin users are unaware of the damage they are doing to their life. Usually, signs of addiction start to show, which may include neglecting their own needs and putting heroin usage first.

Most heroin users who want help fear the pain of withdrawal, which can be a very extensive process. Even so, finding heroin addiction treatment can save your life or your loved ones’ life, and you should start that process right now.