Long-Term Effects of Heroin

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. You will realize that it was well worth it when you decided to enter a top exclusive private rehabilitation center.

Dependence and Addiction

Tolerance, dependence and addiction may be the greatest dangers of heroin use. Throughout the country, the percentage of heroin users who become physically or psychologically dependent on this drug is disturbing. In Illinois alone, heroin abuse was the most common reason for drug treatment admissions in 2010, with over 10,000 episodes of treatment, according to a Whitehouse state report.

When you’re abusing a drug, you may take risks with your health and jeopardize your future in order to use the substance, but you’re still physically able to stop. When you’re dependent on a drug, your body and mind rely on that substance to function. How do you know when problem use has crossed the line into heroin dependence?

  • Tolerance. You need more of the drug to get the kind of high you want.
  • Physical withdrawal. You start to experience heroin withdrawal symptoms — nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking, chills — when you can’t use 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.

*FAQs About Heroin Withdrawal

  1. When does heroin withdrawal start? According to the Partnership at Drugfree.org, withdrawal symptoms may start within a few hours after your last dose of heroin if you’ve been using the drug regularly.
  2. What are the symptoms of heroin withdrawal? Symptoms may include intense cravings, agitation and restlessness, bone pain, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, chills and goose bumps.
  3. How long does heroin withdrawal last? You may experience the worst of the withdrawal symptoms within two to three days after stopping the drug. Symptoms usually improve within seven days.
  4. Can heroin withdrawal kill me? Heroin withdrawal usually isn’t fatal. But if you’ve been using heavily for a long time and you have other health complications, suddenly stopping may be life threatening.
  5. Do I need a doctor’s help to withdraw from heroin? You may not need medical supervision if you haven’t been using for a long time and you’re generally healthy. However, withdrawing in a medically supervised rehab facility may make the process more tolerable and may increase your chances of getting clean.

Effects on the Heart and Blood Vessels

Many of the long-term effects of heroin are associated with the dangers of intravenous drug use. Although heroin can be injected into muscles, smoked or snorted, IV injection is the fastest way to get that euphoric rush. Within only a few seconds after injection, heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it’s converted into morphine, a powerful narcotic, by the brain. But 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.

Drug users who inject heroin are not only sending the drug itself straight into their bloodstream. They are also injecting 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:

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

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. In heavy heroin users, abscesses and subcutaneous tissue infections (cellulitis) may occur. Veins can become scarred and permanently damaged.

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 like hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. 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:

  • 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.

*Hepatitis C: The New Epidemic

Hepatitis C (HCV) has become the most prevalent blood-borne illness, not only in the US, but throughout the world, according to the journal Liver International. The journal reports that:

  • IV drug use is the most common reason for HCV
  • 57 percent of IV drug users may be infected with HCV
  • As many as 5.2 million people in the US may be infected with HCV
  • The risk of HCV increases in people who also have HIV

Effects on the Lungs

When you take heroin, life suddenly seems to happen in slow motion. In fact, heroin slows down your central nervous system and suppresses your body’s involuntary processes, like 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 like 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 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.

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. According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, long-term heroin users may be at a higher risk of an overdose if they:

  • Are going through withdrawal
  • Have a reduced tolerance because they’ve been clean for a while
  • Mix heroin with other drugs, like cocaine, tranquilizers or alcohol
  • Have had an overdose in the past
  • Are depressed or suicidal

If you’ve been using heroin for a long time and you decide to get clean, your tolerance to the drug will decline. Many long-term users who’ve 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

Recovering from heroin addiction isn’t impossible, but it may be the most challenging struggle you ever face. After you’ve been using heroin for a while, the drug becomes a big part of your life. Even if you know that you have to give up heroin in order to avoid losing your health, your loved ones, your career or your life, this powerful drug can convince you that nothing matters but your next high.