Signs, Effects & Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Understanding the Signs of Heroin Addiction

Understanding the signs of heroin addiction

Heroin is an illegal opiate that is created from morphine, a naturally-occurring opiate found in the seedpod of poppy plants grown in various areas around the world. While Afghanistan produces most of the world’s heroin, South American heroin has become the most prevalent type of heroin available in the United States. Street heroin is rarely pure and may range in color from white to dark brown powder of various consistencies. The differences in heroin are generally the result of impurities remaining from the manufacturing process and the presence of additives, such as starch, sugar, powdered milk, and other benign substances.

Heroin can be abused in a number ways, including smoking, snorting, or injecting. Mexican black tar heroin is usually dissolved and injected or smoked due to its consistency. Once heroin enters the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier, the sedative properties of this illegal drug slow down the body systems, creating a feeling of warmth, relaxation, a decrease of anxiety, detachment and, as an analgesic, relief from aches and pains. These symptoms appear very rapidly and usually last several hours, depending upon the purity and the dose. IV injection of heroin creates the most risks for a heroin abuser as it can lead to greater amounts of the drug (and any additional contaminants) to enter the bloodstream rapidly. Additionally, IV drug use using shared, “dirty” needles increases likelihood of infection with bloodborne illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C. All methods of administration and regular heroin use can lead to the body becoming physically dependent upon the drug, leading to withdrawal symptoms if drug use is abruptly discontinued.


Statistics for heroin addiction

In 2011, 4.2 million people (1.6% of the population) in the United States age 12 and older had used heroin at least once in their lifetime. Of those, about 23% will become dependent upon it. Opiate use and addiction is linked to over 50% of major crimes in the United States; at least half of those arrested for violent crimes were under the influence of opiates when they were arrested. In 2002, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that nearly 100,000 people were seen in emergency rooms across the United States as a result of heroin.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & risk factors for heroin addiction

Researchers have been unable to determine the precise cause for addiction to heroin; most generally believe that there is a complex interplay of factors working together to create addiction. The most commonly accepted causes for heroin addiction include:

Genetic: Most researchers believe that genetics play a role in addiction. People who have a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, with an addiction to heroin or other substances are at a greater risk for developing an addiction themselves.

Physical: Some people may be born lacking the proper levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine – the pleasure chemical – in the brain. These people may try to correct this deficiency by abusing drugs such as heroin.

Environmental: People who are raised in a home in which addiction was normal grow to learn that abusing drugs is the way to cope with negative life circumstances. Additionally, people who begin to experiment with drugs at younger ages are at a greater risk for developing addictions later in life.

Psychological: Some people are struggling with undertreated or undiagnosed mental illnesses and may use heroin and other drugs of abuse to self-medicate the symptoms of their disorder. This can quickly spiral into addiction if not kept in check.


Symptoms of heroin addiction

The symptoms of heroin abuse will vary depending upon individual genetic makeup, length of abuse, amount of heroin used, and usage of other drugs or alcohol. Some of the most common symptoms of heroin abuse include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Increasing time spent alone
  • Engaging in illegal activities
  • Sudden need for money
  • Inability to maintain responsibilities at work, home, or school
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Physical Symptoms:

  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Heaviness in the extremities
  • Decreased respiration rate
  • Bradycardia
  • Dry mouth
  • Tolerance
  • Physical addiction

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Going “on the nod,” an alternating wakeful and drowsy state
  • Psychological addiction
  • Mental cloudiness
  • Decreased mental focus
  • Inability to problem-solve

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Surge of euphoria
  • Depression
  • Mood swing


Effects heroin addiction can have

The long-term consequences of heroin abuse and addiction can be devastating and life-threatening. The effects will occur on a spectrum based upon individual genetic makeup, presence of other health-related issues, length of addiction, frequency of use, and presence of other drugs in the addict’s body. Long-term effects of heroin abuse may include:

  • Fatal overdose
  • Incarceration
  • Divorce
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Social isolation
  • Poverty
  • Joblessness
  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Infectious diseases – HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, C
  • Liver disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Abscesses at injection site
  • Kidney disease
  • Pulmonary complications
  • Permanent damage to all vital organs

Withdrawal Effects

Effects heroin withdrawal can have

Heroin is a dangerously addictive drug that can cause serious complications in the life of an addict, including overdose and physical dependence.

Withdrawal from Heroin Effects: Chronic heroin abuse leads to physical dependence, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms if the drug is abruptly discontinued. Withdrawal should always occur in a medically-monitored detox and rehabilitation program to prevent complications. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal may begin within a few hours following the discontinuation of heroin usage and include:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps- “cold turkey”
  • Involuntary kicking movements- “kicking the habit”
  • Severe cravings

Heroin Overdose: Overdose from heroin may occur when too much heroin is used in one sitting or if the purity is higher than an addict is accustomed to. Overdosing from heroin is a medical emergency and includes the following symptoms:

  • Slow, labored breathing; shallow breathing; no breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Tongue discoloration, dry mouth
  • Extreme hypotension
  • Weak, thready pulse; no pulse
  • Cyanosis of lips and nails
  • Spasms of gastrointestinal tract
  • Muscle spasticity
  • Drowsiness and disorientation
  • Delirium
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction & co-occurring disorders

There are a number of disorders that occur alongside heroin addiction. The most commonly co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcoholism
  • Other substance abuse

Our treatment center is in Salt Lake City (Midvale) and serves residents from all over Central and Northern Utah. Call one of our admissions counselors today for a free, confidential screening to see how Highland Ridge can help you regain a happy, healthy life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about heroin addiction

What are the signs of heroin use in adults?

The signs of heroin use in adults may include:

  • Sores, scabs, and other evidence of injections
  • Lack of ability to concentrate or focus
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Uncharacteristic drop in performance at school or work
  • Drastic mood swings

What are the physical symptoms of heroin use?

If someone is using heroin, he or she may exhibit the following physical symptoms:

  • Disrupted appetite and resultant weight loss
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sores, scabs, and other evidence of injections
  • Persistent lethargy and fatigue

What are the symptoms of heroin overdose?

If someone who has been using heroin begins showing any of the following symptoms, he or she may be suffering an overdose, and will need immediate medical attention:

  • Faint pulse
  • Shallow, slow, or labored breathing
  • Extreme confusion or disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness and inability to be awakened
  • Bluish tint to skin near lips and/or fingertips

What are the behavioral effects of heroin?

Heroin use can affect your ability to regulate your behavior, and if you use heroin, you may find yourself:

  • Lying, keeping secrets, or otherwise acting deceptively about activities and whereabouts
  • Attempting to borrow or steal money
  • Having persistent unexplained absences from school and/or work
  • Developing an uncharacteristic drop in performance in school and/or at work
  • Demonstrating a lack of attention to grooming and personal hygiene

What do heroin addicts look like?

Heroin addicts come from all walks of life, and sadly, substance abuse affects nearly every segment of the population. However, there are some typical signs that a person could be abusing heroin, including the following:

  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Unprovoked violence

Are heroin withdrawals deadly?

An unassisted heroin withdrawal can be an incredibly painful and potentially fatal experience. Signs and symptoms of heroin withdrawal may include the following:

  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness and inability to be awakened
  • Bluish tint to skin near lips and/or fingertips
  • Constricted pupils
  • Muscle spasms or seizure

If someone who has been abusing heroin enters withdrawal, seek immediate medical attention.

Are heroin overdoses painful?

Sadly, because heroin is not regulated, a person has no means of assessing the purity of the substance that he or she purchases. If you use heroin, you put yourself at high risk of unintentional overdose, a tragedy that has taken the lives of countless individuals. If someone who has been using heroin begins showing any of the following signs, seek immediate medical attention:

  • Shallow, slow, or labored breathing
  • Extreme confusion or disorientation
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness and inability to be awakened
  • Bluish tint to skin near lips and/or fingertips

I always felt alone in my addiction, but the people at Highland Ridge truly cared for me and I am so thankful to them for my recovery.

– Emma N.