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Confronting the nature of you or your loved one’s addiction can be challenging.  This is particularly true when determining if you or a loved one is addicted to heroin.  Heroin addiction is extremely damaging. Long-term heroin users typically experience a number of negative impacts on their physical and mental well-being as a result of their drug use.  

In this article, we’ll break down how heroin interacts with the user’s body, and how these complex interactions translate to the most common signs of heroin addiction.  Understanding how heroin interacts with the body upon use provides some powerful insights into the process through which a user becomes addicted. It also illuminates some of the significant health risks that come with using heroin and provides context for the withdrawal symptoms that accompany cessation of use.  

Chemical Dependency vs. Addiction

If you are asking yourself, “Am I addicted to heroin?”, then you have already taken a powerful first step towards recognizing the ways that your substance use, or abuse, may be having an impact on your life.  Knowing whether someone is addicted or not is more difficult than it may appear on the surface. For someone questioning whether they are addicted to heroin, or for those that have a loved one that may be addicted to heroin, it is important to first understand what addiction is.

Addiction is typically defined as a compulsion or need to continue using a substance such as heroin, despite the negative impact that drug use is having on your life.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse also makes note that a high tolerance to a drug, and withdrawal symptoms from the drug once use has ceased, are also indicators of an addiction.  This broad definition lies at the root of much of the confusion surrounding addiction and addiction treatment. Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse makes note that tolerance and withdrawal are signs of addiction, these traits overlap with chemical dependency.  

Chemical dependency is often conflated with addiction, leading to confusion among drug users and their families.  This confusion can quickly become overwhelming when looking for treatment options and facilities, as some short treatment programs, such as those geared towards detoxing a patient, may only be useful for treating chemical dependency.   

A simple way to understand the difference between chemical dependency and addiction is to remember that although acute chemical dependency is present in nearly all people who are current, long-term drug users, not all long-term drug users are addicts.   

For example, a person who suffers from depression and anxiety may be prescribed benzodiazepines.  This person uses them exactly as prescribed, and may not even particularly enjoy the physiological effects of the medication.  In this example, if they have been taking their prescribed medication for a period of time, they will almost certainly have some level of chemical dependency.  This means that if that person stopped taking their medication quickly, their body would have a reaction to the lack of medication and they would begin to feel the onset of withdrawal symptoms.  In this example, the person would be considered chemically dependent on benzodiazepines, but lacking in the other hallmark signs of an addiction to the drug.

So, you may be asking yourself, “Why is this important?”  The differentiation between chemical dependency and addiction is important when discussing any drug or substance abuse, but it is particularly important when discussing heroin.  Heroin use in the United States has been linked, over time, to the exceptional numbers of prescriptions for opiate-based painkillers. Although opiates have been used in Western medicine for some time, it wasn’t until the introduction of Vicodin in 1978, and it’s generic form in 1983, that a much wider swath of citizens in the United States became exposed to opiates.  

For many of these Americans, battling chronic pain has required them to take opiate-based painkillers like Vicodin for a long period of time.  In these cases, patients may have a strong chemical dependency on the drug, while not exhibiting all or even many of the telltale signs of heroin or opiate addiction.  Because of this, it is important to place the drug use of yourself or your loved one within the context of their medical history, health, and drug use over time in order to determine if they are suffering from chemical dependency or addiction.

If you are still unsure about whether you or your loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, it is important to consult with a qualified medical professional in order to determine the exact nature of you or your loved one’s drug use and outline a comprehensive treatment strategy.

Key Indicators of Heroin Addiction

Whether you have abused heroin and are wondering if you are addicted, or you have a loved one addicted to heroin, understanding the warning signs you are addicted to heroin is important.  Undergoing treatment for heroin addiction is a difficult process, and the length of time that a patient has abused heroin can have an impact on the withdrawal symptoms they experience.  By recognizing the signs of heroin addiction early, you will be able to give yourself or your loved one the best chance for a successful recovery.

Many of the signs of a heroin addiction are tied to the physical and psychological effects that heroin use has on the body.  Heroin is a powerful opiate that depresses the central nervous system of the user while simultaneously producing feelings of euphoria.  Heroin use also results in a rapid chemical dependence on the drug, which quickly leads to addiction.

Most of the non-physical signs of heroin addiction are the result of the illicit nature of heroin, the cost of maintaining the addiction, and the difficulty many addicts experience balancing their addiction with their professional and home lives.  Heroin addiction can be such a powerful force that it results in the destruction of professional careers, families, and productivity in the addict.

Financial Instability

Simply put, doing heroin is expensive.  Heroin itself is expensive simply because it is illegal.  Maintaining a heroin addiction is even more costly, due to the loss of productivity that results from being under the effects of the drug and the time it takes to purchase more.   Financial instability resulting from heroin use over time is a good indicator that you or your loved one may be addicted. The financial problems that result from a heroin addiction usually begin small, with things like late credit card payments and a few missed days from work.  Over time, however, maintaining the heroin addiction will usually continue to place a strain on the user’s financial situation as they prioritize their addiction over everything else.


Some of the most devastating effects of heroin addiction are found in the relationships around an addict.  Often, maintaining a heroin addiction results in profound damage in the relationships of those closest to the addict.  Family members and close friends are usually those most affected by the addiction. At the same time, they are also first to notice that something may be wrong.  A loved one’s consistently erratic behavior, such as drastic mood swings from lethargy to anxiety, or uncharacteristic outbursts of anger, may be resulting from their heroin use.  

As the heroin addict comes down from their high, they will begin to feel withdrawal symptoms.  These symptoms continue to become increasingly uncomfortable over time, which can lead to irritability and outbursts of anger.  Heroin addicts also tend to withdraw from the world around them as they continue to use. Be mindful if you notice your loved one absent or withdrawn.


Health can be dramatically altered by long-term heroin use.  Declining health as a result of heroin use can be an important sign that it is time to get help.  Heroin addicts can be very thin, with the appearance of wasting away. Heroin addicts typically ignore proper nutrition, which combined with the suppression of appetite that comes along with heroin use and the effects of the drug itself, results in weight at unhealthy levels.  Long-term users that inject heroin are also at risk of developing a number of communicable diseases if they share needles with other drug users. The side effects of heroin abuse itself can suppress indications of underlying health problems.

There are many other additional factors that influence health and longevity, whether they result from heroin itself or the lifestyle of the addict.  However, when looking at health in order to determine if someone is addicted to heroin, it is important to keep in mind that in general, people change relatively slowly.  When someone begins using heroin regularly, they will show rapid changes in their health. Things such as skin complexion, flushing, clarity of the eyes, and appearance of the teeth can all serve as early warnings of heroin abuse.  

One clear trend can be seen through each of these three key areas that heroin addiction effects.  As the user becomes addicted to heroin, their addiction increasingly becomes their most important priority.  Many heroin users may not even consciously recognize that this is happening. Loved ones of heroin users may struggle to pinpoint the signs early in an addiction.  

Some heroin addicts are able to maintain a semblance of a balance between their addiction and their lives, for a time at least.  However, you may notice your loved one missing more days of work than usual. Or missing family dinners or birthday celebrations.  If you yourself are an addict, you may have missed family functions or work because you were buying or doing heroin. Although these types of situations can become easy to explain away as a one-time thing, most often they don’t happen just once.  

Signs of heroin addiction are usually accompanied by clear signs of heroin use.  Those closest to the addict may notice signs of continued substance abuse, such as bruising and track marks on the arms or a constantly running nose.  Family members may find an empty baggy or other paraphernalia that leads them to suspect drug use. Physiological signs of heroin use, such as drowsiness and lethargy, can also serve as a good indicator.  

One mistake many people make is explaining away the early warning signs, such as suspicious paraphernalia or odd behavior.  Of course, no one wants to assume someone closed to them is addicted to heroin, nor should that be your first thought. However, it is important to place these signs within the context of their other behavior rather than simply explain them away.

If you are wondering, “Am I addicted to heroin?”, Or if you are concerned a loved one is addicted to heroin, it is important to take all signs of heroin addiction together.  By placing these signs in the context of one another, you will be able to see if there is a pattern that indicates heroin addiction. Once you determine you or a loved one is addicted to heroin, it is crucial to then take the next step and seek help.  Kicking a heroin addiction isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Many users that attempt to kick their habit without professional help struggle to truly overcome their addiction.  Medical professionals are able to create a customized treatment plan, medically supervise and manage the withdrawal process, and ensure adequate aftercare treatment.  Treatment for heroin addiction typically encompasses an inpatient recovery program lasting from 30-90 days. During this time the recovering addict will undergo a medically supervised withdrawal and detox period, after which they will begin the process of recovery.  

During their recovery, they will take part in individual and group therapy sessions, life skills classes, and other activities designed to cultivate a greater sense of mind-body awareness and well-being.  Whether you are concerned for yourself or your loved one, recognizing the presence of an addiction is an important step towards recovery. Once you recognize the signs of heroin addiction in yourself or in a loved one, it is important that you seek assessment and guidance by a qualified medical professional.  Heroin addiction is treatable, you just have to be open and ready to change.