Heroin Addiction:
Facts, Effects, and Everything You Need to Know About

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As a member of the opioid family, heroin is a commonly abused drug in the US that takes thousands of lives each year. It is not typically the first, or second stimulant drug that users turn to, but as a last resort to feed their addiction that once started with prescription of pain medications.

It’s a powerful opiate that gives off a severe effect to the  reward system of the brain. It rigs the system through altering the process of creating feel-good chemicals in the brain such as endorphins and dopamine.

Typically, the brain generates such chemicals to reward the behaviors that are important for survival such as helping people cope with pain and even eating. The brain immediately connects heroin to the activation of endorphins and dopamine in the brain reward system. Consequently, the user can’t function without the drug and becomes addicted.

Over the recent years, nearly 80 percent of those addicted to heroin attribute their use to prescription opioid use, an epidemic that is worsening every day in the US.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opiate (or narcotic), processed from morphine and extracted from opium poppy plants. It was discovered by acetylation of morphine and proved to be a more effective painkiller than morphine or codeine.

Widely considered as a wonder drug, heroin was first produced on a commercial scale in 1898 by the Bayer Company. It was not long after that it was discovered that patients had developed a tolerance, becoming addicts rather quickly.

By the early 1910s, morphine addicts recognized the euphoric properties of heroin and how injecting the drug into the bloodstream offered an enhanced high. Heroin abuse quickly spread, and restrictions and regulations were placed on its production, use, and distribution on an international scale.

After 1931, these regulations and restrictions helped to significantly decrease legitimate production, through the black market and illegal trafficking has only increased at an exponential rate in recent decades.

Since the 1970s, the quantity of confiscated heroin saw an increase of tenfold worldwide, which is a striking indicator the plague knows no geographic or socioeconomic bounds.

The price comparison of heroin to prescription drugs is remarkable, causing many to seek out the less expensive street drug and putting demand at an all-time high for heroin.

Heroin is a fast acting drug, allowing the user to feel its euphoric high relatively quickly. As it enters the brain, heroin changes back to morphine and binds to opioid receptors, which is the part of the brain responsible for pleasure. However, autonomic bodily functions such as blood pressure, breathing, and arousal are also affected.

For now, heroin abuse has not surpassed that of painkillers, but a shift could happen quickly, due to the similarities among the drugs and their interactions with the user’s neurochemistry.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

In its purest form, heroin is an odor-free white powder – the whiter the powder, the purer, and more potent, the heroin. However, depending on geographic location in the US, the color varies from white to brown. For example, white to off-white powdered heroin is rampant in the eastern region of the US.

Color differentials are typically a result of additives to the drug, or how the drug has been “cut.” This makes the drug even more dangerous, as many users will not know what each dealer has mixed in with their heroin, a practice used to dilute their product and make a larger profit.

Dealers have been known to mix in anything from baking soda, sugar, flour, to laundry detergent, talcum powder, and caffeine. Even more treacherous, rat poison and the extremely potent fentanyl have been known additives.

With no real knowledge of how much heroin is in each hit or what combination of additives was used, an overdose or even death can easily happen. Some of these ingredients, like caffeine, will conceal the signs of an overdose.

While powder is the most common form users will find in heroin, it can be found in a sticky black vinegar-smelling substance known as “black tar heroin;” this form is more common in the western region of the US.  

Heroin can be used by snorting or sniffing it, smoking it, or when made into a concoction, can be injected under the skin, into the muscle, or directly into the bloodstream. Typically, heroin with a high level of purity is usually only snorted or smoked.

How is Heroin Consumed?

Fast fact: Heroin gets to the brain as quick as it can be, irregardless of how the user put it into his/her body. Hence, it’s very easy to become addicted to it. It’s difficult to stop from using heroin again once you managed to get a dose of it.

The common way to consume a heroin is through smoking or snorting. However, most users prefer to inject it into their veins to get high quickly, which by the way, is the most dangerous way of taking heroin. You can be infected by dirty needles and the likelihood of overdosing is high.

What Are Common Nicknames for Heroin?

Heroin often goes by other names when being trafficked or sold on the streets, to be less conspicuous. The DEA has identified a few names you would most commonly hear in reference to heroin:

  • Big H
  • Black Tar
  • Chiva
  • Hell Dust
  • Horse
  • Negra
  • Smack
  • Thunder
  • Dope
  • Horse
  • Junk

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin is extremely addictive, and users can quickly develop a tolerance, meaning they need to increase their dose or use more frequently to achieve the same effects.

Many people have reported it took one hit and they were hooked on the feelings of the extremely good “high,” triggering their heroin addiction. From the point when addiction takes footing, the now hijacked brain is continually focused on securing their next fix, at times going to great lengths.

Continued use of heroin can cause a substance use disorder (SUD), when the drug has caused health problems and leads to the user being unable to meet responsibilities in their personal life or at work.

Like other opiates, heroin increases the amount of dopamine that is released in the limbic reward system. This can lead to the brain becoming dependant on heroin for the cue to produce dopamine, unable to do it on its own.

It is because of the hold that heroin takes on the brain that makes detoxing, especially on one’s own, extremely difficult and even potentially harmful to the body.   

The Harmful Effects of Heroin

The users of heroin link the “high” effect of using the drug to an extreme sense of well-being. When a person uses heroin, especially though injection, he/she usually experience a so-called “rush” when the drug reaches the brain.

This rush lasts for about two minutes. When pleasure is concerned, heroin users resemble it to an orgasm. The high lasts for four to five hours as heroin passes through the bloodstream.

The common effects of using heroine includes the following;

  • Apathy
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Contentment
  • Drowsiness
  • Relieved tension

There is no comedown or hangover from initial heroin use unlike other substances such as ecstasy or alcohol, which make it as an appealing benefit for the user.  What may seem as a harmless and recreational use of heroin often develops into addiction as the tolerance for this drug rapidly grows.

As a consequence, the user won’t feel normal unless he/she takes heroine. The user’s brain can no longer produce dopamine on its own and it becomes dependent on heroin. And as the user continuously takes heroine at higher dosages, he/she becomes more susceptible to a fatal overdose.

The following are the general symptoms of heroin overdose;


  • Dry mouth
  • Bluish lips
  • Slow pulse
  • Unusually small pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • Discoloration of tongue


Signs of Heroin Addiction


It’s often difficult to talk and open up about heroin addiction, even with your loved ones. Those who struggle with it are not always truthful about their condition. As a matter of fact, most users aren’t even aware about the severity of things that resulted from their heroin addiction.

It may be a challenging and somewhat superficial, but talking about heroin addiction could potentially save lives. Hence, if you think that a member of your family or someone you know or care about is having issues with using it, you need to pay attention to their physical characteristics, lifestyle habits, and even their homes. It will help you learn the depth of the problem and discover the truth.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction is a crucial step towards helping someone fight and win over it. The following are the common changes you need to look for;

  • Flushed skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Falling asleep suddenly
  • Constricted pupils
  • Loss of self-control
  • Slow breathing
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Vomiting


Atypical signs and symptoms of heroin addiction may also include;


  • Memory loss
  • Disorientation or confused thinking
  • Feelings of heaviness
  • Difficulty in making decisions


  • Palpitations
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Chest pain

Heroin users also need stool softeners or laxatives as it can also cause constipation.

Who Are at Risk for a Heroin Addiction?

Everyone is at risk to addiction. And those who use heroin have a likelihood  of developing heroin use disorder. Although it’s impossible to exactly pinpoint who’s at risk for such a disorder, there are factors that increase the probability of developing addiction.

As per Mayo Clinic, these risk factors include the following;

  • Personal or family history of addiction to other substances
  • Vulnerability to high-risk environments or individuals
  • History of severe  anxiety or depression
  • Heavy and long-term use of tobacco
  • Risk-taking behavior history
  • Unemployment


Medical Complications of Heroin Abuse

Heroin is an extremely potent drug that yields equally dangerous and life-threatening complications. For instance, using heroin can cause miscarriages among pregnant women. Some users get infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV from sharing needles. A heroine overdose is also proven fatal.

Long-term use of heroin may also damage different organs. Those who have  history with heroin addiction may develop liver, heart, or kidney disease due to their drug abuse in the past. Heroin also damages their immune system. These people may also experience periodic infections because their immune system can no longer ward off bacteria.

The additives present in heroin can also clog and coagulate blood vessels like veins and arteries. It can lead to strokes, heart attacks and lifelong  organ damage. Take note that some of these additives are fatal and can kill a user within a matter of minutes. Heroin and the rest of illegal drugs could be mixed with harmful substances that can only be classified when accident or death happens.

Further, infants born to heroin users are often delivered underweight. When a mother uses heroin during pregnancy, the baby will be physically addicted to it also. As such, the infant will likely develop neonatal abstinence syndrome or withdrawal from narcotics exposure.

How to Treat Heroin Addiction?

When it comes to treating heroin addiction, there’s no such thing as “one cure, fits all.” Fortunately, there are efficient treatments that are readily available to help the person stop using it and recover. These treatments are usually dependent to the following factors;

  • the substance used
  • the substance user or addict
  • Existing  medical conditions


There are different treatments for heroin use disorder. Using two or more methods or procedures is often more effective compared to just using one approach. The two primary methods of heroin use disorder treatment are behavioral and pharmacological (medication).

Pharmacological Treatment

When a physically addicted person stops using heroin, he/she will likely experience a gamut of physical symptoms due to withdrawal. These symptoms should not be taken lightly as they could be fatal if left unattended or untreated.

The following symptoms are;

  • Pain
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea


The process of detoxification or getting heroin out of the body can be uncomfortable and painful. There’s also the extreme lust for the drug that every patient needs to deal with. Sometimes, people use heroin to numb themselves from the pain caused by detoxifying and  withdrawal symptoms.

As such, medication can ease physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings and reduces the chances of using heroin again during detoxification. If detoxification is physically unbearable, proceeding treatments will not be that effective. Thus, to strengthen the safety of detox, the person must be medically supervised. In some cases, a doctor will advise hospitalization for detox.

Behavioral Treatment

This treatment can be executed in either inpatient or outpatient treatment settings which includes;

  • Group therapy
  • Single or one-on-one therapy
  • Management of contingency


Behavioral therapy may help the person;

  • Recognize the risk factors of drug use
  • Develop coping mechanisms when heroin cravings strike
  • Create ways to deal with degeneration.
  • Recognize and manage  issues that may lead to emotion-related discomforts




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Withdrawal Symptoms of  Heroin

Withdrawal symptoms for heroin varies among people. There are different factors that determines the severity of withdrawal symptoms.

How it was abused, how long it was used, and the extent of dosage taken are the factors that directs the dependence of  the body and brain to heroin. Hence, the duration and severity of the withdrawal differ as well.

Withdrawal symptoms varies in severity depending on the duration of abuse and level of dependence. For a person who only abused low doses of heroin for months or years, the withdrawal experience may not last as long and could be tempered.

On the flip side, for someone with previous heroin withdrawal or a history of mental illness, the withdrawal could be intense. A rush of pleasure occurs when heroin is abused. However, the effects are quite the opposite during withdrawal stage. And these withdrawals could be mild, moderate, or severe.

Symptoms for mild withdrawal:

  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Tearing
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Yawning a lot


Symptoms for moderate withdrawal:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Tremors
  • Fatigue
  • Goosebumps


Symptoms for severe withdrawal:

  • Drug cravings
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Hypertension
  • Depression
  • Muscle spasms
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty feeling pleasure
  • Impaired respiration


Heroin withdrawal is considered fatal on its own. However, some of the psychological and medical symptoms could be fatal as well. As such, it’s important that one is properly trained about these symptoms and the things to do to counteract them.

Heroin Addiction Statistics

Heroin was once thought of a drug for the low class, but the use of heroin has increased in recent years and taking the lives of musicians and actors for decades, including Philip Seymour, Cory Monteith, John Belushi, and Janis Joplin; thus demonstrating that the effects of heroin can reach anyone, of any race, gender, age or economic status.

Historically, women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes have had a much lower user rate, but these are the groups that have seen the highest increase in recent years. Now, more than half of the individuals who use heroin are women, and most of them are in their late 20s.

The CDC reported that in 2016 nearly 950,00 people in the US 12 years or older, reported using heroin in the past year. In 2015 it was reported that just over 81,000 Emergency room visits in the US were from unintentional heroin-related occurrences in roughly 26 per 100,000 people.

What was once considered a drug that was only found in the urban areas of large metropolitan cities, the number of overdose deaths in suburban areas has increased in recent years. The CDC reported that the US saw 15,469 deaths in 2016 due to heroin-related overdose, of those deaths 5,507 were in large central metro areas, but 4,623 were in fringe areas of large metros.

What to Do if You Think Someone Is Using Heroin?

A person who’s under the influence of heroin use doesn’t always look high. He/she may just look drowsy or sleepy. And most often than not, he/she denies using it. If you think a family member, friend, or someone you care about uses heroin, don’t just wait for things to change or get better. Take an action right away, the sooner, the better.

Addiction to heroin can be treated. You can start by getting in touch with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Further, if you think someone overdosed on heroin, you need to call 911 as treatment must be given immediately.

If proper medication will be given right away, the heroin’s effect will be reversed. Fortunately, there are now available FDA-approved prescription treatments that can be used by caregivers and family members to treat a person suspected or known to have had an heroin overdose.

Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

Overcoming a heroin addiction is exceedingly difficult, especially if attempted alone. Heroin use can affect judgment, planning and organization abilities of the user, adding a challenge when weaning off the drug.

Many who struggle with addiction and rehab often return to the drug after a period of sobriety; it is essential that each patient has a support system in place throughout the entire journey for sobriety.

Those suffering from heroin addiction and abruptly stop using the drug will have intense withdrawal symptoms. These can begin just hours after their last use and can include restlessness, severe muscle pain, sleeplessness, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes, and restless legs.

The well-trained staff at the Southern California Addiction Center understands the control heroin can have on the brain, and the toll it takes rewriting the brain. They will work with each patient individually to set the best course or treatment and therapy.

Treatment typically involves more than just detox, though that is a crucial element. Skilled therapist and doctors help decide what medication would be best, start therapy and group support programs, and implement other tools to overcome their addiction.

Are You or a Loved One in Need of Help?

If you or someone you know are suffering, and in need of help, we are here for you. CONTACT US TODAY and take the first steps toward the process of recovery. We believe that all of our guests deserve a second chance, and our mission is to make sure that everyone has that opportunity should they need it.

CALL 1-714-942-4942
EMAIL [email protected]

Are You or a Loved One in Need of Help?

If you or someone you know are suffering, and in need of help, we are here for you. CONTACT US TODAY and take the first steps toward the process of recovery. We believe that all of our guests deserve a second chance, and our mission is to make sure that everyone has that opportunity should they need it.

CALL 1-714-942-4942
[email protected]

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