Effects of Heroin Addiction on Brain and Body - The Discovery House Los Angeles CA

Effects of Heroin Addiction

What Are The Effects Of Heroin Addiction?

People who use heroin often do so because of the happiness and positivity they experience. Those who inject the drug get a significant rush of euphoria followed by a dream-like state during which they feel like all is well.

For all the damage it does to lives and society at large, its important to know the effects of heroin and why users find it so compelling.   

The short-term effects of heroin last for about three to four hours. While some people use the drug once and never do it again, some people become dependent on it. They don’t feel normal unless the drug is in their body.

If a person goes on to develop an addiction, they will experience several negative consequences. The effects of heroin addiction can be medical, mental, social, financial, and legal.

Essentially, opioid addiction touches every aspect of one’s life. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional help if you’ve become reliant on heroin or another opioid.

Heroin Addiction as a National Challenge

Heroin Addiction as a National Challenge

Prior to 2006, heroin use had been on the decline in the United States. However, it subsequently started to increase among people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and geographic locations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, heroin use has increased most significantly among women, privately insured individuals, and people who have higher incomes.

One reason for the increase in use could be the increased availability of purer heroin which doesn’t have to be injected. Not only are some people averse to intravenous drug use but they believe smoking or snorting heroin is less likely to lead to addiction. This is a misconception.

The increase in heroin usage also coincided with a crackdown on prescription opioids in response to an epidemic of addiction and overdose.

Since Vicodin, oxycontin, and similar prescription drugs are more expensive and harder to get, some people turn to heroin which is cheaper and more readily available.

People are often drawn to heroin because they’re struggling with symptoms of anxiety or depression. However, when the euphoria wears off, they’re left with unpleasant or often dangerous side effects.

Continued heroin use can make mental health issues worse, trapping the individual in a vicious cycle.

Recognizing a Heroin Addiction

Using heroin can quickly lead to addiction. Given how serious and wide-ranging the effects of heroin addiction can be, it’s important to be able to recognize the signs of addiction in yourself or a loved one.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual mentions 11 signs that suggest an individual has an addiction to heroin. 

The criteria are as follows:

  • Taking heroin in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
  • Constantly wanting or trying unsuccessfully to reduce or control heroin use
  • Spending a lot of time seeking out heroin, using heroin, and recovering from using heroin
  • Experiencing a strong desire to use heroin
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, home, or school because of repeated heroin use
  • Continuing to use heroin despite experiencing social or interpersonal problems that are caused or made worse by the drug 
  • Reducing or giving up participating in important social, recreational, or occupational activities 
  • Repeated heroin use in situations where it is physically dangerous
  • Continued use even with the knowledge that a recurrent or persistent mental or physical is probably caused or made worse by heroin
  • Developing tolerance. This is characterized by needing a significantly increased amount of heroin to achieve the desired effect or experiencing a significantly diminished effect when using the same amount.
  • Experiencing withdrawal. This presents as either the typical heroin withdrawal syndrome or the use of heroin or a similar substance to avoid or reduce withdrawal symptoms.

The more symptoms a person displays, the more severe their addiction is. While you shouldn’t attempt to self-diagnose or diagnose another person, these signs mean that you should talk to a professional.

Thousands of people receive treatment for heroin every year and no matter how long you’ve been using, you can achieve sobriety.

Possible Physical Effects of Heroin Addiction

Many of the effects of heroin addiction are long-lasting. People who use heroin for an extended period experience a range of medical complications. Regardless of whether a person injects, smokes, snorts, or sniffs heroin, they may be affected by constipation and insomnia.

Pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other lung problems may also develop. This is both because heroin depresses respiration and because the people who use heroin frequently or for a long time are often in poor health.

Men who use heroin often experience sexual dysfunction while women may notice that their menstrual cycle becomes irregular.

There are also specific physical effects of heroin addiction linked to the various methods of administration. For example, people who snort heroin on an ongoing basis can suffer damage to the mucosal tissues in the nose as well as perforation of the septum.

Meanwhile, people who constantly inject heroin may develop collapsed or scarred veins, abscesses, and bacterial infections of the heart valves and blood vessels.

Also, since many of the additives in heroin don’t dissolve easily, they can clog the blood vessels that lead to the brain, lungs, liver, or kidneys. This can lead to infection or death of some of the cells in vital organs.

Moreover, when the body’s immune system reacts to contaminants in heroin, an individual may develop arthritis or other rheumatological issues.

People who share needles and other injection equipment are also at risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis B, and other blood-borne illnesses that can then be passed on to their spouses or children.

Maternal and Fetal Effects of Heroin Addiction During Pregnancy

It’s important to note that heroin use and addiction during pregnancy can lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Heroin can pass to the fetus through the placenta and cause the baby to become dependent on the drug. Symptoms of NAS include:

  • Fever
  • Excessive crying
  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Slow weight gain
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

NAS can lead to death. It requires hospitalization and the baby is often given morphine to relieve the symptoms. The dosage is gradually tapered off until the baby is opioid-free.

The outcome can be improved during pregnancy with methadone maintenance, comprehensive drug treatment, and sound prenatal care. However, infants exposed to methadone while in the womb often still need to be treated for NAS.

The Risk of Overdose

The Risk of Overdose

Anyone who uses heroin can overdose. Overdose can occur when someone either injects too much heroin or uses heroin along with alcohol or other drugs.

Some people think they’re using pure heroin but the drug can be cut with a wide variety of substances including fentanyl and cocaine.

Signs of overdose include:

  • Slow heartbeat
  • Cold skin
  • Blue fingernails, toenails, or lips
  • Very slow breathing
  • Snoring
  • Low body temperature
  • Muscle twitching
  • Drowsiness
  • Gurgling in the throat

Overdosing on heroin can result in stroke, seizure, or cardiac arrest all of which lead to coma or death. The effects of a heroin overdose can be reversed with an injection of naloxone.

Mental Effects of Heroin Addiction

There’s evidence that heroin abuse and addiction cause long-term damage to the brain and some of the changes may even be permanent. Even after some individuals stop using and complete treatment, they say they never feel completely normal.

One study found that individuals recovering from heroin addiction continued to have a strong desire for heroin even though they had completed treatment and therapy and hadn’t used it for up to three years.

The study involved 30 people and it found that certain environmental cues or stressors could trigger cravings. 

Even though people who have undergone therapy will be better at managing stress, making decisions, and regulating their emotions, stressful situations can trigger a desire to use again.

Each person’s triggers will be different but loneliness, a bad fight or even boredom can threaten sobriety. That’s why people who are recovering from addiction to heroin need to identify their stressors and triggers and develop ways to cope on an ongoing basis.

Challenges notwithstanding, people who are addicted to heroin can improve their physical and mental wellbeing and find happiness. However, the recovery process must involve addiction professionals, supportive relatives and friends, and sober peers who are also in recovery.

The Social Effects of Heroin Addiction

Addiction often drives a wedge between friends. Even if your friends don’t use heroin or other drugs, they may not be bothered by your drug use at first. However, that may change.

If you’re constantly using drugs, they may not enjoy your company. They may want to participate in activities in which you’re no longer interested. Some people simply don’t want to associate with someone who uses illegal drugs or lies and steals in order to get drugs.

It’s also not uncommon for people who are addicted to heroin to become paranoid, delusional, or aggressive. This can make it very difficult for friends to stick around.

This means you’ll either spend a lot of time alone or with other people who are also dependent on or addicted to heroin. While this peer group will be more welcoming and understanding than your old friends, they will make it harder for you to quit.

Other Effects of Heroin Addiction

Heroin abuse and addiction touch every area of an individual’s life. In addition to the physical, mental and social effects of heroin addiction that we’ve discussed, abusing heroin can also result in:

  • Neglect of hygiene and personal appearance
  • Financial problems
  • Legal issues
  • Expulsion from school
  • Dismissal from work
  • Suicide

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Heroin is one of the drugs for which there are approved medications to prevent relapse. Heroin addiction is, therefore, usually treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, contingency management, and rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT).


Methadone has been used to treat opioid addiction since 1947. A number of studies show the effectiveness of methadone treatment for heroin addiction.

One study compared methadone and psychosocial treatment with a placebo and psychosocial treatment. It found that methadone treatment was able to reduce not just opioid use, but the transmission of infectious diseases associated with opioid use as well as criminal behavior.

Patients who were on methadone recorded 33 percent fewer positive opioid tests and they were more than four times more likely to stay in treatment. Even when methadone treatment wasn’t accompanied by regular counseling, outcomes were better in the long term.


Buprenorphine was approved in 2002 and it is available on its own and in combination with naloxone. One study carried out in Sweden found that patients who received 16 mg buprenorphine during detox had a 25 percent treatment failure rate.

Patients who were given a placebo had a 100 percent failure rate. Both groups received psychosocial support.


Naltrexone reduces opioid cravings and limits the euphoric and sedative effects of heroin and other opioids. When it was only available as a daily pill, people found it difficult to keep up with their treatments.

However, the newest formulation allows for an extended-release dose to be injected just once per month. Evidence suggests that this is much more effective.

Seek Treatment from The Discovery House in Southern California

Now that you’re aware of the serious effects of heroin addiction, you may be ready to get professional help. With the right support, you can kick your heroin habit and start to live a healthier lifestyle.

Addiction treatment should never be a one-size-fits-all approach. While people who are addicted to heroin have lots of things in common, no two individuals are exactly alike.

At The Discovery House, we evaluate each person who enters our drug treatment programs. We learn about their needs and preferences so we can customize a holistic program that best suits them.

We also treat co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders. This increases the individual’s chances of achieving long-term sobriety. 

We know paying for rehab can be a challenge. However, we accept several insurance policies including: 

  • Aetna Health Insurance
  • Cigna Health Insurance
  • Assurant Health
  • ValueOptions Behavioral Health Care
  • Blue Cross and Blue Shield
  • Healthnet
  • United Healthcare
  • Humana
  • UPMC

Contact us today if you want to learn about our treatment options or you’re ready to get started on your journey towards a drug-free life.