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Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Heroin with spoon and syringe

Dependence and Addiction

Throughout the country, the percentage of heroin users who become physically or psychologically dependent is on a disturbing upward trend.

Heroin overdose caused more than 10,500 deaths in 20141 and was involved in nearly 21% of drug-related emergency department visits in 2011.2 Because heroin dependence and addiction can cause such serious problems, it is important to recognize when to seek help.

How do you know when problem use has crossed the line into heroin dependence?

Heroin dependence is characterized by the following:3

  • Tolerance. You need more of the drug to get the kind of high you want.
  • Physical withdrawal. You experience heroin withdrawal symptoms — nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking, chills — when you’re not using the drug.
  • Psychological withdrawal. You feel anxious, unfocused, or depressed when you can’t use heroin.
  • Failure to quit. Even if you’re aware of the way heroin is harming your body, mind, relationships, and work life, you can’t quit, in spite of repeated attempts to get clean.

Tolerance and physical dependence are two of the greatest dangers associated with heroin because they drive compulsive use and lay the groundwork for eventual addiction. They signify that the body and brain have become so accustomed to heroin being in the system that a person might not feel like he or she can function without it.

If you observe these signs in yourself or a loved one, please don’t hesitate to get help. Proper treatment can help you recover from heroin addiction. Call 1-888-744-0789 to find a heroin treatment program that suits your needs.

FAQs About Heroin Withdrawal

  1. When does heroin withdrawal start? 

In cases of significant heroin dependence, users may experience severe heroin withdrawal within just a few hours after the drug was last used, and the symptoms can be extremely painful. 3

  1. What are the symptoms of heroin withdrawal? 
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme restlessness
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Chills and tremors
  • Dilated pupils3
  1. How long does heroin withdrawal last? 

The trajectory of heroin withdrawal is based on a number of factors, such as severity and duration of use, polydrug abuse, and withdrawal history.

Heroin withdrawal can be divided into two phases:

  • Acute phase: Approximately 4 days.
  • Protracted phase: Weeks to months. Protracted withdrawal is characterized by difficult psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.4
  1. Can heroin withdrawal kill me? 

It is commonly stated that heroin withdrawal isn’t fatal. While this is true in the literal sense — heroin withdrawal does not have the same risk for physical fatalities like seizures, but psychological symptoms and suicidal thoughts are extremely prevalent.

The physical withdrawal syndrome experienced by many attempting to quit heroin is, at times, so intense that it compels them to begin using the drug again. The risk of overdose may be amplified in these situations, as tolerance may have decreased somewhat and/or the user may be overzealous with the amount used in an attempt to immediate relieve the withdrawal symptoms.

For both of the above reasons, the safety of an individual can be markedly increased if detoxification and withdrawal are done with medical supervision.

  1. Do I need a doctor’s help to withdraw from heroin? 

Patient getting support through withdrawalWithdrawing in a medically supervised rehab facility may make the process more tolerable and may increase your success in getting clean. The uncomfortable symptoms of acute heroin withdrawal may be safely managed as part of a detoxification program at the beginning of heroin addiction treatment.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with a heroin abuse problem, call us at 1-888-744-0789 to learn about your treatment options. It’s never too late to get help.

Effects on the Heart and Blood Vessels

Heroin is a powerful drug, and when injected, it can produce quick, intense effects. Purity and potency vary from batch to batch, so an IV user may be especially at risk for overdose. Heroin overdose causes the user’s heart rate and breathing to drop drastically, potentially leading to death if they do not receive medical attention right away.

The dangers of heroin aren’t limited to slowed heart rates and respiratory arrest; there are many additional long-term risks associated with intravenous heroin abuse.

Users who share needles and other paraphernalia may also be injecting bacterial contaminants. Bacteria traveling through the bloodstream may cause infections in the circulatory system, including the blood vessels and the heart itself.

If users share needles with people who have an infectious agent in their blood, such as HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C, then they may contract these serious health problems and be affected for life.

In heavy heroin users, abscesses and subcutaneous tissue infections (cellulitis) may occur. Veins can become scarred and permanently damaged, leaving users with track marks on their bodies. 3

Heroin Adulterants Can Cause Severe Damage

Unlike the sterile solutions and pharmaceuticals that are injected into the veins in a clinical setting, the street heroin injected by the average user is rarely, if ever, pure.

Many heroin batches contain substances called “adulterants” or “diluents,” which are used to increase the bulk of the drug or enhance its effects. A review of clinical studies published in Drug Testing and Analysis found that injectable heroin might contain:5

  • Caffeine.
  • Procaine.
  • Starches or sugars.
  • Paracetamol.
  • Strychnine
  • Fentanyl.

Exposure to Disease

If you use heroin long enough, the drug can introduce you to a whole new world — the world of blood-borne diseases. Sharing needles and having unprotected sex while you’re under the influence can expose you to deadly viral infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.

Often users may not even know that they have these blood-borne infections, and unwittingly spread the disease to others. A person who injects drugs and has hepatitis C, for which there is no vaccine, is estimated to infect 20 other people.6

Hepatitis can cause permanent damage to your liver, interfering with your body’s ability to metabolize nutrients and eliminate toxic wastes. Hepatitis C, which is becoming increasingly common among IV heroin users, can cause serious long-term complications such as:7

  • Jaundice.
  • Chronic fatigue and weakness.
  • Weight loss.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Liver cancer.

At this point, there is no cure for hepatitis C. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 15 to 25 percent of the people who contract this disease will eliminate the virus from their bodies without any treatment.8

Hepatitis C: The New Epidemic

Hepatitis C (HCV) has become the one of the most prevalent blood-borne illnesses, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.

  • IV drug use is one of the most common factors contributing to the spread of HCV.7
  • As many as 150 million people in the world may be infected with HCV. 7
  • Nearly 70-80% of those infected with HCV do not show symptoms.8
  • 50-90% of injection drug users infected with HIV also have HCV. 8

Many heroin users don’t even realize that they have HCV, making this infection particularly dangerous. Most often, it is spread through sharing needles and unprotected sex.

Long-term heroin use can destroy every aspect of your life, from your physical health to your finances, career, and relationships. Yet the intense euphoria and heavy sedation of a heroin high are so addictive that users are willing to run these risks in order to continue their love affair with the drug.

When you take a look at how heroin affects you after months or years of abuse, you may realize that recovering from addiction to this devastating drug is absolutely worth the effort. Please call 1-888-744-0789 and start your recovery today.

Effects On the Lungs

Looking over lung x-raysWhen you take heroin, life seemingly switches to slow-motion. In fact, heroin slows down your central nervous system (CNS) and suppresses your body’s involuntary processes, such as respiration. Heroin also suppresses the impulse to cough, a healthy reflex that clears debris, mucus, and harmful organisms from your lungs.

Over the long term, heroin can make you susceptible to lung diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. When you can’t clear your lungs effectively, bacterial or viral infections are likely to develop, which may eventually lead to pneumonia.

Smoking heroin can also irritate and scar the linings of your respiratory tract. To make matters worse, long-term heroin users often neglect their general health, which weakens the entire body and worsens the consequences of lung disease.9

Overdose: The Ultimate Side Effect

Whether you’re experimenting with heroin for the first time or you’ve been using the drug for years, overdose is the ultimate side effect. Heroin suppresses your vital functions, slowing down your circulation and breathing. Even if you’ve developed a tolerance for heroin, overdose is an ever-present risk.

Some signs of a heroin overdose include:10

  • Shallow or no breathing.
  • Low blood pressure/faint pulse.
  • Disorientation and drowsiness.
  • Extremely small pupils.
  • Bluish tongue, nail, and lip discoloration.
  • The person has lost consciousness and is unresponsive.

According to the World Health Organization, long-term heroin users may increase their risk of an overdose if they:11

  • Abuse heroin via injection.
  • Have a reduced tolerance because they’ve been clean for a while.
  • Mix heroin with other drugs, such as cocaine, tranquilizers, or alcohol.
  • Have overdosed in the past.
  • Are depressed or suicidal.

If a person has overdosed on heroin, it is vital to get medical help immediately. The primary concern during a heroin overdose is the sudden drop in breathing and blood pressure. Fortunately, doctors can stop the effects of the opioids with medication (e.g., the opioid antagonist naloxone), which can save the person’s life if they get to the hospital in time.

Keep in mind that if you’ve used heroin for a long time and decide to get clean, your tolerance to the drug will decline. Many long-term users who have been abstinent for several weeks or months have overdosed when they relapsed because their bodies could no longer tolerate large doses of the drug.

Hope for Long-Term Users

Young man talking to doctorRecovering from heroin addiction is possible, but it may be the most challenging struggle you ever face. After you’ve used heroin for a while, the drug has become a big part of your life. Even if you know that you have to give up heroin to save your health, your loved ones, your career, or your life, this powerful drug can convince you that nothing matters but your next high.

Fortunately, behavioral therapies and medication-assisted treatment (e.g., methadone, buprenorphine, Suboxone, etc.) can help someone like you through heroin abuse recovery. Traditional treatment offers inpatient and outpatient services that incorporate both psychotherapy and medications to help users through recovery.

Inpatient services involve staying at a sober live-in facility for a predetermined amount of time to undergo therapy and relapse-prevention education. Many former users find that this escape from their using environment helps them with their recovery, and if your addiction is severe, this is often the recommended treatment setting.

Outpatient programs, on the other hand, involve working through treatment from home, and attending daily groups at the treatment facility.

Luxury treatment programs offer both inpatient and outpatient services, and they provide enhanced one-on-one care for recovering heroin abusers. Because heroin withdrawal can be so unpleasant, luxury treatment focuses on comfort to help former users feel better during treatment. Luxury programs also provide numerous amenities that may help refocus recovering heroin abusers during the cravings and discomfort of transitioning to an abstinent life.

Heroin abuse has many detrimental consequences, not only for the users themselves, but also for the people that care about them. To find the right recovery program for you or a loved one, call 1-888-744-0789 to speak with a treatment program specialist today.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). DrugFacts: Heroin.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). Substance Abuse Treatment for Persons with Co-Occurring Disorders. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  5. Cole, C., Jones, L., McVeigh, J., Kicman, A., Syed, Q., and Bellis, M. (2010). Adulterants in illicit drugs: a review of empirical evidence. Drug Testing and Analysis, 3(2), 89-96.
  6. Magiorkinis, G., Sypsa, V., Magiorkinis, E., Paraskevis, D., Katsoulidou, A., Belshaw, R., Fraser, C., Pybus, O.G., & Hatzakis, A. (2013). Integrating phylodynamics and epidemiology to estimate transmission diversity in viral epidemics. PLoS Computational Biology, 9(1).
  7. World Health Organization. (2015). Hepatitis C.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public.
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?
  10. U.S. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus. (2013). Heroin Overdose.
  11. World Health Organization. (2014). Information sheet on opioid overdose.