Heroin Addiction: Effects, Withdrawal & Detox

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug derived primarily from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the opium poppy plant. Read on to learn more about heroin, its health effects and risks of use, and how to get help for heroin addiction.
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About Heroin

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illegal and addictive opioid drug made from morphine, a naturally occurring substance that comes from the seed pod of certain types of poppy plants.1

Depending on how it is manufactured, heroin can be a white or brown powdery substance or a sticky, black, resin-like substance often referred to as black tar heroin.1

The reason for the different color and consistency can be a result of the chemicals used and the impurities left behind after the heroin is processed.2

Heroin can be smoked, snorted, or mixed with water and injected.

Is Heroin Addictive?

Yes, heroin is highly addictive. In 2022, an estimated 1 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using heroin. The majority of them (about 900,000 people) met the criteria for heroin addiction, or what is also known as a heroin use disorder.1,9

Heroin is classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I drug because of its high potential for abuse and lack of accepted medical uses.3

Depending on the specific route of use, the effects of heroin may be felt almost immediately. Once in the bloodstream, heroin enters the brain and is converted to morphine, which rapidly binds to and activates opioid receptors.

Opioid receptor activation can result in an intensely pleasurable rush, in addition to other pharmacological effects such as alterations in pain signaling.4

The euphoric rush of opioids like heroin is also associated with increased dopamine activity. Dopamine is a brain chemical thought to be involved in the reinforcement of use of drugs like heroin through its activity in the reward circuitry of our brains.5

Heroin use and the resulting increase in dopamine activity can prompt a person, over time, to seek out the drug for its pleasurable effects again and again, which can lead to compulsive use of the drug.5

Signs of Addiction

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Signs that a person is struggling with heroin addiction may be less noticeable at first.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), addiction to heroin (diagnosed as an opioid use disorder) can be characterized by a pattern of use that leads to clinically significant impairment and is manifested by at least two of the following 11 criteria occurring in a 12-month period:13

Doctors and other healthcare professionals may make a diagnosis of heroin addiction, or an opioid use disorder involving heroin, utilizing the above criteria.

Effects & Risks

Effects of Heroin

Heroin use can be dangerous and lead to multiple adverse health effects.4,12

For some people, heroin use results in an extremely pleasurable “rush” that may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as a warm flushing of the skin and feeling of heaviness in the extremities.4

After the initial rush wears off, people often feel drowsy for several hours. Their thinking may become clouded, heart function slowed, and breathing rate dramatically slowed.4

Other adverse short-term effects of heroin use include:12

  • Dry mouth.
  • Itching.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.

Risk of Fentanyl-Laced Heroin

The rise of powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl has increased certain risks associated with heroin use.14,15

Fentanyl is being increasingly used as an adulterant or additive in street drugs like heroin, meth, cocaine, and counterfeit pills. Because fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, even a small amount can be deadly for people with relatively lower opioid tolerance.14,15

Using fentanyl-laced heroin can increase the risk of severely slowed breathing, overdose, and death. Fentanyl has no smell or taste, which makes this combination especially dangerous because people may not realize their drugs contain fentanyl and may unknowingly use a lethal amount.14–16

Heroin Overdose Symptoms

Too much heroin can easily result in life-threatening complications or death. A heroin overdose can depress a person’s respiratory drive to the point that breathing slows or stops. The resulting oxygen deprivation can lead to brain and other organ injury, coma, and death.15

The main signs or symptoms of a heroin or other opioid overdose are:15

  • Loss of consciousness and inability to waken.
  • Pinpointed pupils.
  • Slow, shallow breathing.
  • Bluish or purple-colored fingernails or lips.

An overdose is an emergency. Always call 911, even if the person wakes up, and wait with them until help arrives.

Heroin Treatment

How to Treat Heroin Addiction

A combination of treatment approaches may benefit people who are addicted to heroin or other opioid drugs. For people with opioid use disorders, treatment often begins with a period of medical detox. Without medical management, acute heroin withdrawal can be an extremely uncomfortable process.

Some of the medications initiated during detox (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine) may continue to be used as part of a comprehensive treatment approach for opioid use disorders. Such medications can help people manage cravings and decrease the likelihood of a return to heroin use.18

Behavioral therapy combined with medications serves as the standard of modern treatment for those battling addiction to opioids. The combination of medications to help manage withdrawal and cravings and behavioral therapy to best address the psychological issues of addiction and recovery form the two pillars of a comprehensive, individualized plan to help people recover from heroin addiction.18

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

If someone has been using heroin for a while, they will likely experience withdrawal when they suddenly stop or cut back their use.13,15

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may include:15

  • Anxiety.
  • Insomnia.
  • Body aches.
  • Abdominal cramping.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Runny nose.

Although withdrawal from heroin can be very uncomfortable and unpleasant, it is rarely life-threatening.15

Heroin Rehab Near Tampa, Florida

If you or someone you care about is struggling with heroin addiction, our inpatient rehab near Tampa is here to help.

At River Oaks, we offer different types of rehab and personalized treatment plans designed to meet the individual needs of each patient. We also provide various evidence-based treatment approaches, including medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD).

We are advocates for our patients and work with insurance companies to obtain the best coverage available for each person. Call to learn more about how to pay for rehab, insurance coverage for rehab, and more.

Our caring admissions navigators are available around the clock to help you start the admissions process and begin the path to recovery today.

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