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Heroin is one of the most dangerous substances in existence. A major issue lingering above the country’s current opioid crisis, heroin is often what users turn to when they can no longer acquire prescription opioids. At this time, they may become hooked on heroin because of its potent high and relative cheapness.

This illicit drug is highly addictive and brings with it a slew of dangers, including physical, mental, and social consequences, as well as legal. In this post, we’re going to talk about the many side effects of heroin abuse that prolonged users may encounter.

What Is Heroin?

A modified version of morphine, heroin typically comes in a white powder form, but is often mixed with other substances which sometimes give it a yellow, brown, or even black color. Heroin is most often cooked and injected, but it can also be smoked or snorted. The drug is noted for its fast, profound, dramatic high, that leaves users in a euphoric, almost comatose state.

Heroin is extremely addictive because of this intense high, which almost no substance can match.

The Heroin High

Unfortunately, this euphoric high is also the reason heroin is so popular. Heroin produces this effect by binding to opioid receptors in the user’s brain. When the person takes the drug, the affected nerve cells will release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which controls a person’s pleasure center.

Injecting, snorting, or smoking heroin produces an intense rush of dopamine in their body, which gives them the profound sense of euphoria. Once the sensation wears off, the user will crave more, leading them to use again. As the behavior is repeated, the user will build a tolerance and crave a higher dose, and use more often, which is when addiction sets in.

Along with the sense of euphoria, users will feel warm and flushed. The rush of dopamine will also make their extremities feel heavy, and they will have a dry mouth. They will feel numb to any physical or emotional ailments they were experiencing, and the heroin will produce a general drowsy, sedative effect, causing its users to be extremely lethargic. A person on heroin will often nod off and rotate between asleep and awake as they work through the course of the high.

The danger lies in the fact that these feelings of euphoria only last a matter of minutes, while the sedative effects will linger on for a few hours. The method of ingestion will impact how intense the high is felt, as well as for how long, as does the purity and dose of the drug they took. While coming down off a heroin high might not seem so bad, the drug does indeed come with its fair share of undesirable side effects, which we will get to in a bit.

How Harmful Is Heroin?

In short: very. But how harmful heroin is typically depends on the dosage as well as the person’s volume and length of use. Prolonged heroin abuse causes serious mental and physical issues, which bring with them a host of side effects. Heroin may also produce numerous social and legal problems in addition to its effects on the mind and body.

But what makes heroin so harmful is its high risk of causing an overdose.

Why is heroin so much more dangerous than other substances? Because heroin is a street drug, meaning it has no intended or approved medical use, no one is regulating its production. This means there is no consistency, and the drug will vary widely as far as purity and potency. Often, heroin is also “cut” with other substances, adding to the danger.

Even users with a long history with the drug are susceptible to overdose because there is no guarantee what exactly they are putting into their body. Even if they have a high tolerance, their next score could be an especially potent batch, and when they take the same amount they are used to, this time it proves to be too much, and an overdose occurs.

In fact, heroin is the leading cause of overdose deaths among all drugs.

Why Do Drug Users Turn To Heroin?

Heroin might seem like the most undesirable of all drugs because you generally associate it with tying off and injecting a needle. There certainly is nothing glamorous about it, and it is perhaps most famous for killing a sadly large number of rock stars.

Most don’t intend to use heroin but are led there by other drugs. For instance, opioid users often turn to heroin when they can no longer acquire prescription pills, or because their tolerance has built up so high that they need something stronger. Heroin can give them this extra high that they crave, and it’s also cheaper and readily available.

Once it becomes their drug of choice, it won’t take long for them to become addicted and experience some side effects of heroin.

Short-term Side Effects of Heroin Abuse

As soon as heroin’s euphoric and sedative effects wear off, the less enjoyable side effects will begin to creep in. These will range from minor discomforts, too much more difficult and serious health conditions.

Side effects will begin when the user’s body adapts to the heroin in its system and tries to counterbalance the effects and restore the body to its normal function. Early side effects may be no more than some itching as well as grogginess and feeling like they are in a general haze. They will have constricted pupils and be sensitive to light, have slowed cognitive function and seem to be in a general state of confusion, and may experience some minor nausea and vomiting, but that’s just the low end of the spectrum.

Short-term side effects of heroin abuse can get much, much worse. The user’s body temperature and heart rate may drop. Their breathing could also slow enough to the point that it becomes life-threatening, or lead to a coma and permanent brain damage. An overdose puts them at risk of death.

And yes, despite its finality, death is a short-term effect as well as long-term. Because a user never knows the potency of a dosage of heroin, both first- and long-time users are at risk. Anyone who takes heroin can overdose, at any time.

If the person is using any other substances at the same time they take heroin they are putting themselves in an even more dangerous situation, and can expect any side effects they experience to be more intense, last longer, and be more difficult to deal with.

Long-term Side Effects of Heroin Abuse

When a person has had a longer relationship with heroin, they can expect the side effects of prolonged heroin use to be longer in duration as well. Often, long-term side effects of heroin can have lasting, uncomfortable consequences that can influence the user’s future health.

Addiction & Withdrawal

The first long-term side effect to highlight is addiction. As a heroin high wears off, the above negative side effects of heroin will begin, which may lead the person to use again. As this behavior continues, the user will develop an addiction.

Once a person is hooked on heroin, it will consume all aspects of their life. Their job, school, relationships, responsibilities, and anything else, will take a backseat to heroin. Finding and using more will become their primary purpose in life. Nothing else will be important anymore.

Once they build a tolerance and dependence, they will have to keep using to maintain their sense of pleasure. This dependence can happen in a very short period of time. When their body becomes accustomed to having heroin in its system, they will feel nauseous and uncomfortable when it wears off.

At this point, if the person tries to quit heroin, they will have to deal with heroin withdrawal, which itself is extremely dangerous and uncomfortable.

That’s right — even quitting heroin is dangerous. And long-term users can expect to deal with severe withdrawal symptoms, often mimicking an extreme version of the flu. They may also have muscle and bone aches, restlessness, cold flashes with goosebumps, uncontrollable shaking and body tremors, anxiety, insomnia, a pounding or racing heartbeat, sweating, diarrhea, and intense bouts of vomiting.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms typically peak between 24 and 48 hours at the user’s last dose and should decrease in severity and eventually go away in around a week. Some may have lingering symptoms for longer, depending on their length of abuse.

Physical Side Effects of Long-term Heroin Abuse

Heroin addicts can expect to encounter some physical side effects as their addiction grows, and they can vary widely from person to person. This will largely depend on how long they were taking the drug, the volume and potency of the heroin they have been taking, if they have been taking any additional substances at the same time, and their individual genetics and body make-up. The severity of the symptoms they experience will be closely tied to how long they have abused the drug. Generally, the longer they have abused heroin, the worse their symptoms will be.

Long-term heroin abusers will most likely experience changes to their physical appearance, and will cause great harm to themselves internally. Heroin addicts typically have a gaunt appearance with weight-loss being among the most common physical side effects.  Heroin reduces a user’s appetite, which gives them the malnourished appearance, and long-term use will weaken their muscles.

They may also be generally unkempt, as personal hygiene will no longer be a priority. This can cause them to have poor dental health, and suffer from damaged teeth and swollen gums. This is a particular concern if they smoke heroin, as the chemicals are very potent.

One of the more common side effects seen in heroin addicts is itchy skin, which in turn causes them to scratch excessively, which can damage their skin. Pustules often appear on user’s skin, often on their face.

Long-term heroin abusers will usually battle some insomnia and constipation as well as sexual side effects, including impotence, the inability to achieve orgasm, and even a disruption in the female menstrual cycle.

Long-term injection of heroin can even cause a person’s veins to collapse, which can lead to infections in their blood vessels and heart valves. They may also deal with bacterial infections, skin disease, abscesses, arthritis, and even tuberculosis.

Pregnant women who use heroin put themselves at high risk for miscarriage and can transfer a communicable disease to their child, as well as being addicted to heroin from birth.

Other potentially dangerous long-term side effects include:

The list of potential major-risk side effects includes:

  • HIV or Hepatitis B and C
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Infections of the valves and lining of the heart
  • Blood clots, leading to stroke, pulmonary embolism, and heart attack
  • Chronic pneumonia
  • Risks of contracting chronic illnesses
  • Risks for blood-borne pathogens
  • Septicemia
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures
  • Overdose
  • Death

Mental Health Concerns

If a person abuses heroin for a long period of time, it will change the structure and physiology of their brain. This will have a lasting impact on their nervous system. In some cases, the person’s brain may never return to its normal function. The white matter in the brain can deteriorate, cause lasting effects on the person’s behavior, decision-making ability, and response to stress.

Other mental health concerns include a loss of memory and reduced intellectual performance, introversion, depression, and anxiety.

Co-occurring Disorders

Other mental illnesses and health conditions may occur along with heroin abuse, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders, and other substance addictions, including alcoholism.

In addition to all of that, those heroin users that share needles also put themselves at risk for developing AIDS and other infections.

Heroin’s effects also extend beyond the person’s physical and mental health, as their personal life and career may suffer, their finances could deteriorate, and they may cause great damage to relationships with family and friends. And of course, there are legal concerns that come along with using an illegal drug.


It’s pretty easy to see why heroin is a substance to avoid at all costs. The list of side effects of heroin abuse is long, and long-term abuse will cause a person to encounter any combination of these symptoms. If you or someone you know is abusing heroin, get them help before it’s too late.

This list barely scratches the surface of the many potentially damaging side effects of heroin abuse. It is a drug that wreaks absolute havoc on a person’s system, creating a ripple effect from their appearance to their physical and mental health, all the way down to their personal and professional lives.

If you think a loved one might be hiding an addiction, educate yourself on the signs you are addicted to heroin. The sooner you are able to confront the issue, the faster you can get your loved one into a heroin addiction treatment program. Contact us today if you have any further questions regarding heroin addiction and treatment.