Heroin Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Heroin is a powerful and dangerous drug that, when abused, can have a devastating impact. A member of the opioid category, heroin is a highly addictive substance that interacts with areas of the central nervous system that are responsible for respiration, heart rate, and other automatic processes.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

In addition to an initial rush of euphoria, the immediate effects of heroin abuse include slowed heartbeat, shallow breathing, delayed cognitive functioning, and prolonged drowsiness. Individuals who abuse heroin can quickly develop an addiction, which is known clinically as opioid use disorder.

Characteristics of heroin addiction include tolerance, which means that a person will need to ingest larger or more potent doses of the drug in order to achieve the desired effect, and withdrawal, which means that the individual will experience a variety of distressing symptoms when heroin is not present in the body. Tolerance and the continued ingestion of larger doses of heroin can put a person at perpetual risk of overdose, while the pain of withdrawal can make it seem like heroin addiction is an inescapable prison.

But there is a way out. With treatment, heroin addiction can be beaten.

If you or someone that you love has been abusing heroin, please know that effective professional treatment at a comprehensive center, program, or clinic can put you back on the path toward a healthier and much more promising future. With treatment, you or your loved one can successfully get through withdrawal, overcome the compulsion to abuse heroin, and develop the skills and strategies that will support long-term recovery.


Heroin addiction statistics

Data collected by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that the annual rate of fatal heroin overdoses in the United States increased by more than 600% between 2002 and 2015. In the most recent year for which NIDA data is available, about 75% of heroin overdose deaths in the United States involved males. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that heroin use has risen significantly among young adults in recent years, with the rate of heroin abuse in the 18-25 age group increasing by 109% between 2002 and 2013. The CDC has also noted that the rate of heroin abuse is 40 times higher among people who have struggled with prescription painkiller addiction than among those who have never abused pain medications.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

Heroin abuse and addiction can be preceded by a variety of genetic factors and environmental influences, often acting in combination to raise or lower a person’s risk for experiencing a problem with this dangerous drug. The following are among the more common factors that may increase your likelihood of abusing and becoming addicted to heroin:

Genetic: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has reported that a strong genetic component is associated with opioid use disorder. While researchers have not yet established a direct cause-effect relationship between specific genes and heroin addiction, considerable evidence supports a genetic connection. For example, if you have a parent or sibling who has struggled with an addiction to heroin or another opioid, your risk for a similar problem may be significantly higher than the risk among the general public. Also, if you have inherited certain personality traits, such as novelty seeking or impulsivity, your risk for heroin addiction may also be elevated.

Environmental: Genetic factors are not the only influences that can determine whether or not you will abuse and become addicted to heroin. External or environmental causes can also be significant. For example, many people turn to heroin after becoming dependent upon opioids that were prescribed to them to alleviate pain from a chronic condition or in the aftermath of an accident or surgery. In such cases, both the cause of the pain and the prescription of opioids are environmental contributors to eventual heroin abuse and addiction.

Risk Factors:

  • Gender (heroin abuse and addiction are more common among men than among women)
  • Age (heroin abuse typically begins late teens or early 20s)
  • Family history of mental illness and/or substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental illness and/or substance abuse
  • Having a medical condition that was treated with opioids
  • Impulsivity
  • Novelty-seeking personality

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Heroin abuse and addiction may be revealed via a variety of signs and symptoms, which can vary markedly from person to person. The following are among the more common signs that may indicate that someone in your life has been abusing or has become addicted to heroin:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lying, keeping secrets, or otherwise acting deceptively about activities and whereabouts
  • Attempting to borrow or steal money
  • Persistent unexplained absences from school and/or work
  • Uncharacteristic drop in performance in school and/or at work
  • Apparent lack of attention to grooming and personal hygiene

Physical symptoms:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Shallow or otherwise depressed breathing
  • Slowed or otherwise irregular pulse
  • Dry mouth
  • Itchy skin
  • Constipation
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Sores, scabs, and other evidence of injections
  • Disrupted appetite and resultant weight loss
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Persistent lethargy and fatigue

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Lack of ability to concentrate or focus
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to make effective judgments

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Unprovoked violence


Effects of heroin addiction

If you fail to get effective professional treatment for a heroin problem, you may be at continued risk for considerable physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm. The following are examples of the various negative outcomes that can result from chronic untreated heroin abuse and addiction:

  • Exposure to hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Damage to kidneys and/or liver
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Stroke
  • Legal problems, including being arrested and incarcerated
  • Family discord
  • Strained or ruined friendships and other relationships
  • Substandard performance in school and/or at work
  • Academic failure
  • Job loss and chronic unemployment
  • Financial struggles
  • Onset or worsening of co-occurring mental health problems
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

If you have been struggling with an addiction to heroin, you may also be at increased risk for certain co-occurring mental health disorders, including the following:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal and overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: If you become addicted to heroin, your body will react with a variety of painful symptoms if you try to stop abusing this drug, or if you are incapable of acquiring and ingesting heroin. Depending upon the nature and severity of your addiction, the following symptoms may begin to occur within hours of your last dose:

  • Powerful cravings for heroin
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Extreme flu-like symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Elevated temperature and excessive sweating
  • Powerful abdominal cramping
  • Pain in muscles and bones

Effects of heroin overdose: The term overdose describes what occurs when a person ingests too much of a drug, or too potent of a dose, with the result that his or her body is incapable of safely processing the substance. Given the ways in which heroin affects the body, overdosing on this drug can be extremely dangerous, and even fatal. Anyone who exhibits the following signs after abusing heroin is in need of immediate medical attention from a qualified healthcare professional:

  • Faint pulse
  • Shallow, slow, or labored breathing
  • Extreme confusion or disorientation
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness and inability to be awakened
  • Bluish tint to skin near lips and/or fingertips
  • Discolored tongue
  • Constricted pupils
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizure

It was hard for me to open up in group therapy, but after I did, I was able to share more and more each time. Group was crucial to my recovery process.

– Anonymous Patient
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