Heroin Addiction

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Last Edited: April 15, 2024
Edward Jamison, MS, CAP, ICADC, LADC
Clinically Reviewed
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction is a severe and life-threatening condition that requires comprehensive treatment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 80% of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids first, highlighting the opioid epidemic’s gravity. Finding a rehab center nearby involves searching online resources or contacting local health departments for referrals, ensuring access to critical, life-saving treatment options.

What You’ll find in this article:

Dangers of Heroin Abuse

Heroin abuse poses severe health risks, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighting a dramatic increase in overdose deaths over recent years. The dangers of heroin use extend far beyond the risk of overdose; it can lead to long-term health issues such as chronic heart and lung diseases, liver and kidney disease, and infections from needle use, including HIV and hepatitis. Heroin significantly alters brain chemistry, leading to dependency and a challenging cycle of addiction. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and the psychological grip of heroin makes quitting without professional help particularly difficult, underscoring the critical need for awareness and treatment options.

Street Names for Heroin

On the streets, Heroin is known by a variety of names, which vary depending on the mode of delivery and the culture of the user, with a majority of the nicknames coming from English speaking and Hispanic populations. A few of the nicknames include: Smack, Dope, Mud, Horse, Skag, Junk, H, Black tar, Black pearl, Brown sugar, Witch hazel, Birdie powder, Dragon, Hero, White stuff, China white, Mexican horse, Pluto, Skunk, Number 2.

True Stories of Addiction: Heroin

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Dangers of Heroin Overdose 

A heroin overdose is a life-threatening emergency, marked by profound respiratory depression, where breathing becomes slow or stops entirely, leading to hypoxia—insufficient oxygen reaching the brain. Symptoms of an overdose include pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness, and limp body. The risk of overdose increases with higher doses, especially in users with diminished tolerance due to recent detoxification or treatment attempts. The introduction of fentanyl into the heroin supply has exacerbated the danger, significantly increasing overdose fatalities. Immediate administration of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, can reverse the effects of overdose if given promptly, highlighting the critical need for awareness and quick response in such situations. – Learn More

Consequences of Heroin Abuse

Signs & Symptoms

Heroin abuse manifests through a range of physical, behavioral, and psychological signs and symptoms, making it crucial to recognize these early indicators for timely intervention. Physically, users may exhibit constricted “pinpoint” pupils, sudden changes in weight, and marks on their skin from needle use. Behavioral signs often include a decline in personal hygiene, isolation from friends and family, and unexplained financial difficulties or stealing to fund the addiction. Psychologically, heroin users might show signs of disorientation, lethargy, and a general lack of motivation or interest in activities they once enjoyed. Additionally, users may experience mood swings, depression, and anxiety as part of the drug’s effects on the brain’s chemistry. The presence of paraphernalia such as needles, burnt spoons, and rubber tubing is also a clear indicator of heroin use. Recognizing these signs is the first step toward seeking help and rehabilitation for a loved one struggling with heroin abuse. – Learn More

Short-term effects

The immediate effects of Heroin use can vary a bit depending on how the drug is delivered into the system. Other factors included are the drugs’ purity, amount and physical health of the user. The fastest method of delivery is intravenous injection, followed by snorting, and lastly by smoking. The first short term effect of Heroin use is what is known as “the rush,” a sensation of well-being in which the brain’s ability to feel pain disappears. This analgesic effect normally leads to a stage of euphoria, in which the patient will present with a feeling of sedation that can last for several hours, and which will diminish over time with continued use, leading to the patient requiring higher doses each time.

While the euphoric and sedation stages take place, other short term effects will become visible. These effects can include a dry mouth, flushed skin, vomiting, nausea, itching, a sensation of heaviness in both upper and lower limbs, a clouding of mental function, and an alternating state of consciousness and unconsciousness. Sometimes, extreme behavioral changes will also become apparent during a heroin high, but because of the very nature of the drug, there is a real possibility they will not appear until afterwards.

Long-term effects

Once Heroin has taken a hold on your body and mind, due to continued use, a wide range of long term effects can appear. This happens because the body builds up a tolerance to the initial pleasurable effects of Heroin, which means your body has changed and adapted to the drug being in your system and starts demanding more to replicate the initial feelings of euphoria.

As this happens, you will start noticing an increase in specific health issues as a consequence of the increased toxicity of the drug, such as a lower than normal body temperature, bluish hands, feet, lips, nails and other body parts. This is because of a decreased amount of oxygen traveling through your blood to the parts of your body. Your heart rate will also slow down, together with your breathing, due to damage to your blood vessels and circulatory system in general.

Some of the milder long-term effects, are nausea, vomiting, confusion, itchy skin, sensitivity to light and constricted pupils. But the real damage comes from other effects, including exposure to blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis from using dirty syringes, together with skin infections and abscesses at the site of the injection, scarring, irreversible damage to the liver and kidneys, heart infections, miscarriage, malnutrition and sexual dysfunction. Pregnant women who abuse Heroin also expose their unborn children to these same effects as well as fetal addiction, which is when the child presents withdrawal symptoms shortly after birth.

How Long Does Heroin Stay in System

Heroin’s presence in the system varies, with detection times dependent on usage patterns and individual metabolism. Typically, heroin can be detected in urine for 1-3 days, in blood for up to 6 hours, and in saliva for up to 24 hours. Hair follicle tests can reveal heroin use for up to 90 days. Factors such as the amount used, frequency of use, body mass, and metabolic rate influence how long heroin remains detectable. Learn more.

Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction

Heroin rehab offers a structured environment for recovery, focusing on detoxification, therapy, and long-term relapse prevention strategies. Programs typically include individual and group counseling, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to ease withdrawal symptoms, and support for mental health issues. Rehab centers aim to equip individuals with tools and coping mechanisms for a drug-free life.

  • Detox
  • Naloxone
  • Inpatient
  • Outpatient

Heroin Intervention

A heroin intervention is a strategic and compassionate approach designed to help an individual struggling with heroin addiction recognize the severity of their situation and the urgent need for treatment. It involves close family members, friends, and often a professional interventionist coming together to confront the individual in a supportive, non-judgmental manner. During the intervention, participants express their concerns and the impact of the addiction on their lives, while emphasizing their love and the availability of help. The goal is to motivate the individual to accept immediate treatment, highlighting the path to recovery and the support network ready to assist them through the process. – Learn More


Q: What are the signs of heroin abuse?

A: Signs include physical changes like pinpoint pupils, sudden weight loss, and marks from needle use. Behavioral signs are withdrawal from social activities, neglect of responsibilities, and secretive behavior. Psychological symptoms can include changes in mood, depression, and anxiety.

Q: How does heroin affect health?

A: Heroin abuse can lead to severe health issues, including respiratory depression, increased risk of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis due to needle sharing, liver and kidney damage, and mental health disorders. Overdose risk is high, potentially resulting in fatal respiratory failure.

Q: Can heroin addiction be treated?

A: Yes, heroin addiction is treatable. Effective treatments combine medication-assisted therapy (MAT) with counseling and behavioral therapies. MAT uses medications like methadone or buprenorphine to manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings, while counseling addresses the underlying causes of addiction.

Q: What should I do if someone is overdosing on heroin?

A: Immediate action is crucial. Call emergency services right away. If naloxone (Narcan) is available and you are trained to use it, administer it according to instructions. Naloxone can temporarily reverse the effects of a heroin overdose and is a critical tool in saving lives. Stay with the person until help arrives.

Q: How can I help a loved one struggling with heroin addiction?

A5: Offer support and encourage them to seek treatment. Educate yourself about addiction and available treatment options. Consider involving a professional to discuss the possibility of an intervention. Be patient and understanding, recognizing that recovery is a process that requires time and support.