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Effects of Heroin Abuse and Addiction

According to NCDAS, 25% of Americans abused heroin over the past year, with half the number reaching overdose levels.


The National Institute of Drug Abuse, NIH, reports that 4.3 million Americans aged 12 and older have used heroin at least once; this makes up 16% of the American population aged 12 and above. The report continued to state that out of these people, 24% became addicted. Though the dangers of abusing heroin are widely known, it leads to more extensive side effects, eventually leading to more significant health problems.


As we look at the short-term and long-term effects of heroin, remember that treatment for heroin addiction is available. You only have to seek medical advice.

How Harmful is Heroin?

Heroin is a harmful and addictive illegal drug that forms part of opioids manufactured from the opium poppy plant. Continued drug use comes with devastating mental and physical health problems and legal and social ramifications. The drug is available in different forms in the illicit market, including white powder heroin or black tar heroin.


White powder forms; heroin mixes with other white substances like starches, powdered milk, sugars, etc. To some point, some people add quinine to heroin to achieve pain-relieving and fever-reducing properties. On average, these substances appear brownish or yellowish.

Black tar heroin; appears as a black and sticky substance.


Whether you smoke, inject or snort heroin, it works quickly in the body to bring out its disorienting after-effects. Unfortunately, the speed at which heroin works within the human body contributes to its harmful side effects.


The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that heroin is harmful when investigated. These are the number of deaths resulting from heroin overdose:


  • Heroin overdose deaths almost quintupled from 2001 to 2013.

  • There was an increased rate of heroin overdose from 2010 to 2013.

  • Men are more prone to die from a heroin overdose, but the rates of female overdose have increased since 2010.

  • 68% of overdose deaths in 2020 involved heroin abuse.

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Expert Contributor

Dr. Williams presently serves on the board of Directors for two non-profit service organizations. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University, Philadelphia, Pa, and a Ph.D. with a concentration in Clinical Psychology from Union Institute and University. In Cincinnati, Ohio. He is licensed to practice addictions counseling in both New Jersey and Connecticut and has a pending application as a practicing Psychologist in New Jersey.

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Short-Term Heroin Effects

Medical professionals estimate the half-life of heroin to be 30 minutes. This means your blood concentration of heroin reduces by half after 30 minutes of using heroin. Side effects of heroin typically kick in after 10 minutes of consumption, with the effects lasting as long as 5 hours. The short-term side effects of using heroin include:


  • Skin flushing

  • Dry mouth

  • Shallow breathing

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • An extreme overall feeling of heaviness

  • Itchy skin

  • Compulsive scratching

  • Physical and emotional numbness

  • Mental fog and confusion


These short-term side effects of heroin usually change as the addiction progresses. Over time, complications become more evident, leading to more severe health issues. This is because your body becomes resilient to using the drug and requires you to use more of the drug to attain the previous “high” feeling; with greater tolerance, more life-threatening complications result.


Heroin affects the physical structures of your brain and may pose mental health problems which may include:


  • Depression is a condition where you feel overwhelming sadness and inability to feel happy.

  • Social isolation.

  • Memory problems.

  • Anxiety in regards to its continued use.

  • Dependency and addiction.


Long-Term Heroin Effects

More complicated health issues resurface as a result of heroin abuse. Some complications involve hospitalization, chronic conditions, and coma and may lead to death at other times. In addition, when injected, snorted, or smoked, heroin usually affects systems and vital organs of the body. Some of the more common severe medical conditions accompanying the wake of heroin abuse are:


  • Heart infections; usually affect heart valves and linings.

  • Sharing needles poses hepatitis B and C risks, HIV, and blood infections.

  • Seizures.

  • Liver disease.

  • Unknown purity overdose.

  • Destruction of tissues, collapsed veins, and blood clots.

  • Pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections.


Abusing heroin will impact your overall well-being and health. With the progression of heroin addiction, the dangers become even more severe, with stopping addiction a more complex task. While seeking treatment is a potential route to recovery, while offering treatments for some conditions, others may become lifelong and beyond repair. It is, therefore, necessary to seek treatment while you still can.

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Withdrawal Symptoms

When you first enroll in heroin treatment, you undergo a process known as detoxification. Detox aims to ensure your body eliminates harmful and toxic chemicals from your body. However, as your body has become used to heroin, it tries to adjust to living without the drug and hence causes you to have some side effects- withdrawal symptoms.


Withdrawal symptoms vary from mild to life-threatening and depend on your level of addiction. It is, therefore, necessary to undergo the detox stage at a well-monitored medical center since severe complications can become dangerous. Treatment centers also offer less powerful medications such as Methadone and Suboxone, which help ease withdrawal and provide more comfortable detoxification. Some withdrawal symptoms may include:


  • Diarrhea

  • Insomnia

  • Muscle spasms

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Chills

  • Anxiety, agitation, and depression

  • Restlessness and discomfort

  • Racing heartbeat or pounding

  • Shaking

  • Sweating

  • Shivering

  • Pain or aches in the bones

  • Inability to sleep


The effects of opiate withdrawal usually take up to 2-3 days of detoxification and depend on a victim's addiction level. Clearing the drug from the user's physical system is still crucial, as complex and uncomfortable as this process is. Treatment centers ensure the side effects become less painful by monitored care and medications.


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The Bottom Line

Treatment is complex, and withdrawal from heroin is a nightmare; however, living a drug-free life is your ultimate goal. You will feel like giving up and quitting on yourself at times. So, keep loved ones and close friends near during these crucial times to support you; you do not have to go through treatment alone.


The best part is that you do not have to take the more significant steps overnight. Instead, take the smaller ones and improve yourself as you move through your recovery journey. Also, remember to enjoy yourself as you continue.

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How harmful is heroin?
Short-term heroin effects
Long-term heroin effects
Withdrawal symptoms
The bottom line
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