Smoking vs Snorting Heroin: Effects & Dangers

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that can be injected, smoked, or inhaled by sniffing or snorting it.1 Heroin is converted into morphine when it reaches the central nervous system. When morphine connects with opioid receptors, it activates them to diminish pain signaling. Opioid receptor activation may also be accompanied by a pleasant rush, which helps to reinforces patterns of compulsive misuse.2

In addition to dependence and addiction, heroin use can have serious negative impacts on physical and mental health. Some of these health effects are unique to certain methods of use.2, 3

What are the Health Effects of Smoking vs Snorting Heroin?

Smoking and snorting heroin may not have the same stigma that needle drug use carries; however, heroin use—regardless of the path of administration—can be very dangerous, with the potential to kill people in overdose situations.4, 5

Snorting and smoking heroin also have their own unique negative impacts on the body in addition to the effects listed above.

Long-Term Health Effects of Smoking Heroin

Smoking heroin can damage the respiratory system. Early, progressive emphysema and chronic respiratory symptoms are common among people who smoke heroin.8

For example, there are several case study examples of bronchospasm and potentially deadly asthma exacerbations in the setting of heroin inhalation in the scientific literature.9 Another study published in the CHEST Journal found that smoking heroin is associated with a decline in lung function among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and higher rates of respiratory illnesses.8

Long-Term Health Effects of Snorting Heroin

Over time, snorting heroin can inflame and damage the mucosal surfaces inside the nose. People who snort heroin may erode the delicate nasal tissues to the point of perforating their septum (i.e., a hole in the tissue that separates the two sides of the nose) or suffer from chronic nosebleeds and other upper respiratory health issues.3, 10

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Drug abuse can have devastating effects not only on an individual’s physical and mental health, but also on the person’s functioning and behavior. Compulsive seeking and misuse of heroin despite consequences to their health, home-life, career, or academics indicate addiction (also known as opioid use disorder). Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a treatable form of mental condition that should be diagnosed by a medical professional.11

Though ideally a formal diagnosis of opioid use disorder will be made by a healthcare professional, in some instances of compulsive use, loved ones can observe changes in behavior that result from a drug problem. Unusual changes in mood and sleeping patterns, lapses in performance in work or school, and sudden changes in friends and hobbies can all be warning signs that someone has developed a drug problem.12 

Getting Help for Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction can be a devastating illness. However, it is treatable. While addiction treatment is a highly individualized process, there are various evidence-based methods that can help someone down the path of recovery and long-term sobriety.13

Often, the first step is medical detox. Physiological dependence to opioids like heroin can result in powerfully unpleasant withdrawal symptoms as people adjust to functioning without the drug.14

Detoxing from Heroin

Opioid withdrawal is seldom life-threatening, but the symptoms can be painful and uncomfortable enough to lead some people to relapse.11 A supervised medical detox can make the heroin withdrawal process safer and more comfortable by administering medication that eases cravings and withdrawal symptoms and providing 24/7 supervision and monitoring in case of emergency.

In many cases, medication-assisted treatment will continue well after detox ends to maintain someone in recovery in the longer term.

Rehab & Treatment After Heroin Detox

After detox, patients often continue with rehabilitation treatment. Here, patients learn the skills they need to remain sober (i.e., recognizing, avoiding, and overcoming triggers, forming healthy interpersonal relationships, improving problem-solving skills and behavioral patterns, etc.) through various evidence-based therapy methods.13

Rehabilitation treatment can be provided in a variety of settings and lengths of time based on the patient’s unique needs.13

Following rehabilitation, former patients often benefit from one or more forms of aftercare. This may mean staying at a sober-living facility or simply attending weekly meetings in a peer-support program.15

For many, recovering from heroin abuse is a lifelong process that often benefits from professional help. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please reach out to an admissions navigator at to learn about the treatment options and care provided at River Oaks.

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