Heroin Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Often times the signs of heroin addiction can be difficult to identify. One of the most important steps in the recovery journey is understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of heroin addiction.

Understanding Heroin

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

Heroin is a type of opioid that has been synthesized from morphine, which is an extremely powerful pain medication. This illegal drug is highly addictive as it prevents an individual from being able to experience pain while at the same time inducing feelings of euphoria. Heroin can be injected, snorted, or inhaled and all three routes of consumption deliver the drug to the brain at an extremely rapid rate, causing the associated feelings of relaxation and euphoria to occur almost instantaneously. The rapid rate at which an individual is able to experience a high is one factor that makes it so appealing to users and what causes an individual to continue to use this drug despite any negative consequences that may occur. While many individuals abuse heroin in order to achieve a high, there are a number of serious health conditions that can result from the use of this substance. Examples of such conditions can include infectious diseases, heart infections, pulmonary complications, and fatal overdose.

After a prolonged period of heroin abuse, an individual will ultimately develop a tolerance to the drug, which means that he or she will need to take more and more in order to achieve the desired high. This places the user at a constant risk for overdose and death. When left untreated, heroin abuse can completely destroy a person’s life and, in some unfortunate cases, result in death.


Heroin addiction statistics

Studies have concluded that an estimated 9.2 million people chronically use heroin throughout the world. In the United States alone, opiate use, predominantly heroin use, accounts for 18% of the population who receive treatment for drug addictions. Additionally, research has shown that men are twice as likely as women to struggle with an addiction to heroin.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

Just like many other mental health disorders, research has indicated that the reasons behind the development of heroin abuse and addiction are the result of several factors. The main factors that play a role in the development of heroin abuse and addiction include:

Genetic: Since we are all the products of our parents, those who are the children of individuals who have struggled with an addiction are going to be more susceptible to developing an addiction themselves. This suggests that addiction itself has a genetic component to its onset.

Physical: Heroin use causes the pathways inside the brain to change, resulting in a disruption in the way in which the brain communicates by affecting the way in which the cells in the brain send, receive, and process information. Highly addictive substances, like heroin, alter the chemistry of the brain so much that addicts come to believe that they need the drug in order to function, ultimately resulting in the inability to stop using the drug.

Environmental: Environmental factors can play a significant role in the onset of heroin abuse and addiction. For example, family beliefs and attitudes, as well as exposure to a group of friends that encourages drug use, can play a large role in one’s beginning to experiment with drug use.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Personal history of abusing other substances
  • Personal and/or family history of mental illness
  • Peer pressure
  • Easy access to heroin
  • Exposure to violence and crime
  • Low self-esteem
  • Certain personality types
  • Lack of family involvement

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Individuals who are abusing heroin will display a number of different signs and symptoms, which will vary depending upon the individual characteristics of the person, the amount the he or she is using, the frequency of use, and the duration of use. Some of the most commonly identified signs and symptoms that indicate heroin use include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Changes in one’s overall behavior
  • Not fulfilling responsibilities at work or school
  • Frequent lying
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants, even in hot temperatures
  • Sudden, sporadic bursts of hyperactivity
  • Slurred speech
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Cutting back on social or recreational activities
  • Stealing
  • Picking at skin
  • Sudden change in friends
  • Disregard for personal appearance
  • Frequent absences from work or school

Physical symptoms:

  • Track marks on arms or legs
  • Constant runny nose
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Impaired vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scabs or bruises due to picking at the skin
  • Severe itching
  • Lack of energy or motivation

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Problems concentrating
  • Having intense urges to use the drug
  • Inability to control impulses
  • Disorientation
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Frequently fluctuating moods
  • Loss of self-control
  • Feelings of hostility
  • Loss of interest in things once interested in


Effects of heroin addiction

When heroin abuse is not addressed and remains untreated, it can result in long-term negative consequences on the user. While some of the effects may not be apparent at the initial time of use, they have the potential to become an issue with prolonged use or even after recovery from a heroin addiction. Some of these devastating and often life-altering effects may include:

  • Academic and/or occupational failure
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Financial strife
  • Interaction with the legal system, including incarceration
  • Relationship conflict
  • Infection of the heart valves and lining
  • Liver disease
  • Contracting infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis
  • Heart attack, stroke, and seizures
  • Irreversible cognitive impairment
  • Collapsed and scarred veins
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Engagement in self-harm
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for an individual who is addicted to heroin to be struggling with the symptoms of a number of different mental health disorders. Some of the most common disorders known to co-exist with heroin abuse and addiction include:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Polysubstance use

Withdrawal and Overdose

Learn about heroin withdrawal and overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: If heroin use has been going on for an extended period of time and someone stops taking this drug, he or she is likely to experience symptoms of withdrawal. Some of the effects of heroin withdrawal can include the following:

  • Strong cravings
  • Feeling depressed, anxious, or irritable
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pains and diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Excessive sweating
  • Onset of severe flu-like symptoms
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep problems

Effects of heroin overdose: An overdose is a serious medical emergency and treatment should be sought immediately in order to help prevent some long-term health consequences of heroin abuse and, most importantly, in order to potentially save a person’s life. For this reason, it is essential that one is able to recognize the signs of a heroin overdose and get help as soon as possible. Some of the most common signs of a heroin overdose include:

  • Unconsciousness / unresponsiveness
  • Weakened pulse
  • Violent vomiting
  • Slow, shallow, labored breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Discoloration of the tongue
  • Lips and fingernails turning blue
  • Delirium
  • Hypotension
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Coma
What Past Clients Say

I came here during the worst time of my life. I had so much anxiety coming in but the girls in the admissions area were so pleasant and answered all my questions. The hospital was clean and staff were friendly and helpful on the unit. The medicine they gave me helped so much, and I finally feel like myself again. If you’re willing to participate and go to all the groups, you will get something out of the program. I went right from inpatient to their day program for a week afterwards, and that helped me stay focused too.

– Alumni
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