The Health Effects of Heroin
As with most illegal drugs, heroin use has both short-term and long-term effects. Whether injected, snorted or smoked, heroin will begin to affect the body’s central nervous system almost immediately after it is used.
Shortly after using, a feeling of euphoria will come over users, in which they have a warm flushing of the skin, a dry mouth and the feeling of having “heavy” arms and legs.1 After the initial rush, users will go into an alternately wakeful and drowsy state sometimes called “on the nod.”
Because heroin suppresses the central nervous system, the user experiences “cloudy” mental function. Users will begin to breathe at a slower rate and their breathing can reach a point of respiratory failure.
Repeated and chronic heroin users who fail to use sterile technique or share equipment will begin to experience the long-term effects of such practices:
- Infection of the heart lining and valves, normally due to lack of sterile technique.
- Liver disease: approximately 70-80% of new hepatitis C infections in the U.S. each year are the result of injection drug use, and even sharing snorting straws has been linked to hepatitis transmission
- Kidney disease.
- Pulmonary complications, which are often infection related
- Skin infections and abscesses, especially among chronic injectors who suffer scarred or collapsed veins
In addition to the risk of contracting the hepatitis virus, heroin users also have an increased risk of catching human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other blood-borne viruses.
Other Long-Term Health Effects
Other long-term health effects of heroin use can include:
- Collapsed veins
- Constipation and stomach cramps
The most serious health effect of heroin use is the possibility of death due to accidental overdose.
Because heroin is an illegal drug and can be handled and cut (mixed with other ingredients) by various suppliers before it reaches street-level users, those who use the drug never know how potent or pure the heroin they are using is until they use it.
Heroin is often mixed with sugar, starch, quinine, and sometimes, strychnine or other poisons, adding other potential dangers. Because of the unknown strength and actual contents of the heroin they are taking, users are at great risk of overdose and death.
Another dangerous effect of heroin use is the highly addictive nature of the drug.6 All heroin users, even those who only snort or smoke the drug, can become addicted with repeated use.
Over time, heroin users develop a tolerance for the drug requiring them to use increasingly larger amounts to achieve the same feeling they experienced when they first began to use.
After a while, the tolerance level to the drug rises to the level that heroin use in any amount stops producing the euphoric effect the user once experienced altogether. When this occurs, the addict continues to seek and take the drug just to feel “normal.”
They become physically dependent upon the drug.
When people addicted to heroin try to stop using they can experience extreme withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms can include:
- Extreme craving for the drug
- Muscle and bone pain
The most severe heroin withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after stopping use and can last up to a week.
Heroin and Pregnancy
Heroin use during pregnancy carries the risk of spontaneous miscarriage.7 The use of the drug by pregnant women—along with related factors such as poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care—has been associated with low birth weight.
Low birth weight has been linked to later delays in development for the infant.
Babies of mothers who regularly use heroin during their pregnancies can be born physically dependent on heroin themselves and can experience neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a drug-withdrawal syndrome requiring hospitalization.
If you believe your health has been affected by the use of heroin or that you are becoming dependent upon the drug, help is available to help you reduce or stop your use of the drug. There are many treatment options available that have been proven to help those who have a sincere desire to quit. There is hope!
- Heroin. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2019.
- What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?. National Institute of Drug Abuse. 2018.
- Why does heroin use create special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2018.
- Overdose death rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2019.
- What you need to know about heroin. Stanford Children’s Health.
- What is heroin and how is it used?. National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2018.
- Pregnancy and opioids. US National Library of Medicine. 2019.
- SAMHSA’s national helpline. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.