Heroin Abuse Information

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn About Heroin Addiction & Abuse

Heroin is a synthetic opioid, which means it is a laboratory-created substance that shares many similarities with morphine, opium, and other natural derivatives of the opium poppy plant. Often referred to as smack, horse, or tar, heroin is a highly addictive substance that creates a sense of intense euphoria when ingested. The drug usually appears as either a powder or a sticky black solid. Most people who abuse heroin do so by snorting, smoking, or injecting the drug.

Regardless of how heroin is ingested, when it enters the body it is converted back into morphine, and then interacts with receptors in the brain that are associated with pleasure, reward, and pain. These receptors are located in the brain stem, the part of the brain that also controls breathing, blood pressure, and other automatic processes. This poses a particular danger for heroin users, as overdose may lead to lethally lowered blood pressure or slowed breathing.

Heroin’s intense effects often prompt users to desire additional doses after the effects of the first have worn off, and the drug’s highly addictive properties put users at risk for quickly becoming dependent. Once an individual’s body begins to crave heroin, attempting to limit or cease use can trigger the onset of powerful withdrawal symptoms, which can make it extremely difficult for a person to overcome heroin dependence without help from a qualified professional.


Heroin Abuse Statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 1.8% of young adults, ages 18 to 25, have abused heroin at least once in their lifetimes, and about 0.7% of individuals in this age group having engaged in heroin abuse within the past 12 months. About 2% of adults above the age of 25 have abused heroin at least once, and about 0.2% of this age group have abused heroin in the past year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in 2013, the most recent year for which this data was available, heroin overdose was responsible for more than 8,200 deaths.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Abuse

Abusing heroin or developing heroin use disorder may be influenced by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, such as the following:

Genetic: Several studies, including those involving adopted children whose biological parents had a substance use disorder but whose adoptive parents did not, suggest that genetics can significantly increase the likelihood that a person will develop a substance use disorder. Also, having a genetic predisposition to impulsivity has also been identified as a risk factor for heroin use disorder and other substance use disorders.

Environmental: Research indicates that the strongest environmental factors on developing heroin use disorder include exposure to stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope, having access to heroin, and associating with peers who engage in heroin abuse or other forms of substance abuse.

Risk Factors:

  • Gender (males are more likely to abuse heroin than females are)
  • Age (most heroin abuse starts in one’s teens or early 20s)
  • Family history of substance abuse or substance use disorders
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Trauma
  • Access to heroin
  • Impulsivity
  • Poor stress management skills

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

The following signs and symptoms may indicate that a person has been abusing heroin or has developed heroin use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Possession of injection paraphernalia, including syringes and hypodermic needles
  • Constantly scratching oneself
  • Lying or being deceptive about one’s whereabouts and/or activities
  • Lack of participation in significant activities
  • Social withdrawal

Physical symptoms:

  • Lethargy
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Itchiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Scabs, sores, and other skin problems (if injecting heroin)
  • Slowed breathing
  • Lowered heart rate
  • Flushed skin
  • Pupil constriction

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to think clearly
  • Confusion
  • Poor judgment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Euphoria
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Desire for isolation


Effects of Heroin Abuse

Chronic heroin abuse can expose an individual to several unpleasant outcomes, including the following damage to his or her health and wellbeing:

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Family discord
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Academic failure
  • Job loss
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Financial ruin
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation and attempt

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin Abuse & Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals who have developed heroin use disorder may also be at an increased risk for experiencing the following co-occurring disorders:

  • Other substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Heroin Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: When a person’s body has become dependent upon heroin, attempting to reduce or cease use of this drug can prompt a variety of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, including the following:

  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Anxiety
  • Dysphoria
  • Inability to experience pleasure

Effects of heroin overdose: A person who exhibits the following symptoms after ingesting heroin may have overdosed. If overdose occurs, immediate medical attention is necessary.

  • Shallow or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pupil dilation
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bluish tinge near mouth or fingertips
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of consciousness

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Heroin Addiction

Does heroin cause insomnia?

As a central nervous system depressant, heroin can cause lethargy, lack of energy, and excessive sleepiness. However, heroin’s ability to wreak havoc on a person’s body and mind may also cause periods of insomnia and other sleep disruptions. Insomnia is also a common symptom of heroin withdrawal.

What are the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction?

Heroin addiction may reveal itself in different ways from person to person. However, the following are five common signs and symptoms that may indicate that a person has become addicted to heroin:

  • Preoccupation with acquiring and using heroin
  • Needle marks, scabs, abscesses, and other indications of injection drug use
  • Physical and psychological distress when unable to use heroin
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, and/or loss of interest in significant activities
  • Unexplained weight loss

What are the signs of a heroin overdose?

Heroin overdose is a dangerous and potentially life-threatening experience. A person who exhibits the following signs after abusing heroin may have overdosed, and should be brought to the immediate attention of a qualified healthcare provider:

  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Faint pulse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Bluish coloration near lips and fingernails

How does heroin affect your eyes?

Blurred vision and double vision are among the more common eye-related effects of heroin abuse. Studies also suggest that continued heroin abuse can lead to a condition known as “exotropia,” which is characterized by one or both eyes involuntarily turning outward.

What effects does a heroin overdose have on the body?

As an opioid, heroin interacts with areas of the central nervous system that control automatic processes such as heart rate and respiration. A heroin overdose can suppress these functions, which can lead to significant harm or even death. Anyone who has overdosed on heroin should be brought to the immediate attention of an emergency first responder or other qualified healthcare provider.

What causes heroin addiction?

Experts have identified several genetic and environmental factors that can increase a person’s risk for becoming addicted to heroin. The following are among the most common risk factors for heroin addiction:

  • Family history of mental illness and/or addiction
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Prior abuse of prescription medications or other opioids
  • Childhood adversity and/or early exposure to substance abuse

Does heroin cause weight loss?

Significant weight loss is one of the signs of chronic untreated heroin abuse. This can occur for a variety of reasons. Heroin abuse can slow metabolism, cause gastrointestinal distress, and suppress appetite. The nausea and constipation that are common among individuals who abuse heroin can also deter healthy weight maintenance.

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