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  • Heroin is an opioid drug made from opiate (natural opioid) morphine. It causes relaxation and happiness by triggering the release of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure and motivation.

    Even short-term use of heroin can lead to addiction. Also called substance use disorder, addiction is a serious disease that makes you feel unable to stop using a drug. 

    People with heroin addiction face life-threatening health problems along with constant stigma. Fortunately, recovery is possible. 

    How Do People Act On Heroin?

    As with all forms of opioid use, heroin use makes you feel calm, happy, and sleepy. Many people say they feel like they’re dreaming and that the world has slowed down. This feeling makes them speak and move very slowly. 

    They may also experience confusion, memory issues, trouble concentrating, nausea, vomiting, and intense itching. 

    Once the drug starts to wear off, a person may display additional side effects, including:

    • chills
    • trouble sleeping
    • nervousness
    • slowed heart rate
    • slowed breathing

    If you or someone you know experiences slowed heart rate or breathing, seek medical attention. When left untreated, these symptoms may be life-threatening.

    Living With Heroin Addiction

    With continued heroin use, a person will likely develop heroin addiction. This disease causes brain changes that make it extremely difficult to think of anything besides heroin, even if the drug has led to damaged relationships, job loss, and other negative consequences. 

    Long-term heroin use can also cause other health problems, such as:

    • depression
    • irregular menstrual cycles in women
    • sexual dysfunction in men
    • infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis from sharing needles or other drug paraphernalia 
    • lung problems, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, from smoking heroin
    • damaged nasal passages from snorting heroin  
    • scarred or collapsed veins from injecting heroin
    • infection of the brain, lungs, liver, or kidneys 
    • overdose

    Signs Of A Heroin Overdose

    According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), almost 50,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses in 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 28% of those overdoses involved heroin. 

    You face a higher risk of overdose if you mix heroin with other drugs, such as cocaine, alcohol, and prescription opioids like fentanyl. 

    Common signs of a heroin overdose include:

    • dry mouth
    • constipation
    • shallow, slow, or stopped breathing
    • tiny pupils
    • discolored tongue
    • bluish nails and/or lips
    • weak pulse
    • low blood pressure
    • coma (loss of consciousness)

    A heroin overdose can be fatal. Call for emergency health services if you or someone you know experiences these symptoms. Health care professionals will administer naloxone, a drug that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

    The Stigma Toward Heroin Addiction

    Like all mental health conditions, heroin addiction attracts judgment and discrimination, also known as stigma. Although addiction is a disease, some people mistakenly view it as a moral failure. They may judge those who struggle with heroin as weak or lazy. 

    Derogatory Terms

    Many people who stigmatize heroin addiction use derogatory terms like “heroin addict” or “heroin junkie.” These terms are dehumanizing and judgmental. 

    To help fight stigma, use person-first language such as “person with heroin addiction” or “person facing heroin addiction” instead. This type of language acknowledges the person’s disease without blaming them for it.

    Heroin Addiction Recovery Rates

    According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), between 40 and 60% of people with drug addiction relapse (start using drugs again) after completing treatment. Some studies suggest the relapse rate for heroin addiction may be even higher. 

    However, relapse doesn’t mean treatment failed. It just means the person needs additional or modified treatment. Indeed, for most people, recovery is a lifelong journey. 

    Heroin Addiction Treatment

    To increase your chances of remaining drug-free, it’s important to attend a substance abuse treatment program that offers a personalized, comprehensive treatment plan. 

    Most treatment plans include:

    • medical detox, where you’ll receive 24/7 medical monitoring to help you manage withdrawal symptoms when quitting heroin
    • medication-assisted treatment, where doctors can prescribe medications approved by the FDA to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings for heroin, which include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone 
    • therapy, where you’ll work with a mental health professional to understand the reasons for your drug use, manage triggers, and develop healthy coping skills
    • psychiatry, where doctors can prescribe medications to help treat underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder, that may contribute to your drug use

    To learn more about heroin addiction treatment options, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist today.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2022 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Opioid Overdose Crisis
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Treatment and Recovery
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - What effects does heroin have on the body?
    National Library of Medicine - Effectiveness of long-term residential substance abuse treatment for women: findings from three national studies
    United States National Library of Medicine - Heroin overdose

    Medically Reviewed by
    Davis Sugar, M.D.
    on June 28, 2022
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