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Dangers of Heroin

Dangers of Heroin

What are some of the dangers of heroin? Because it is made from a chemical modification of morphine—a substance derived from the opium poppy—heroin is one of the most addictive drugs around. Its marked abuse potential and subsequent risk of dependency development are 2 of the many dangers of this powerful narcotic. Heroin can be smoked, snorted, or injected into veins or muscles, but no matter how it is used, the drug poses a high risk of physical and psychological dependence as well as a high risk of overdose and possible death.

While street heroin acts similarly to the other opioids, it’s especially dangerous not only because of its strength and its potential for addiction, but also because dealers frequently mix the drug with adulterants that can be as harmful as the heroin itself or significantly more harmful. Dangers associated with needle use and heroin include:

  • Exposure to blood-borne diseases.
  • Damage to blood vessels.
  • Abscess or cellulitis formation.
  • Interactions with heroin additives.

Overdosing is a big risk with any illegal drug, but the potency of heroin and its direct effects on the central nervous system make it especially dangerous.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

woman facing depressionHeroin users, even in the short-term, may quickly develop tolerance and physiologic dependence. When your body becomes tolerant to a drug, you need more of that drug to achieve the same rush. It’s startlingly easy to develop a heroin dependence – both physical and psychological – when increasing amounts are abused in an attempt to overcome the growing tolerance.

Once heroin addiction takes hold, a user may experience withdrawal symptoms within 6-12 hours after using the drug. As part of the acute opioid withdrawal syndrome, a heroin dependent individual may experience:

  • Drug cravings.
  • Moodiness: depression, anxiety, fear of withdrawal.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Sweating, runny nose, watery eyes.
  • Restlessness, insomnia, yawning.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Muscle spasms, joint pain, tremor.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate.1

Although opiate withdrawal isn’t usually fatal, the effects of going without the drug for even short amounts of time may feel so devastating that you’d go to great lengths to use again. This perpetuates a dangerous cycle – the longer you keep using heroin, the more you expose yourself to the physical damage, emotional devastation and financial ruin that the drug can cause.

Heroin’s Side Effects on Your Brain and Body

Under the Controlled Substances Act, heroin is classified as a schedule I drug, meaning that it is highly addictive, not safe to use in a clinical setting and has no accepted therapeutic purpose in the medical community.2

Pharmaceutical narcotics like morphine and codeine can be extremely useful for relieving pain, controlling coughs and managing severe diarrhea. While street heroin acts similarly to the other opioids, it’s especially dangerous not only because of its strength and its potential for addiction, but also because dealers mix the drug with adulterants that can be as harmful as the heroin itself—if not more so.

Short-Term Side Effects of Heroin

The euphoric rush of a heroin high is what keeps you coming back for more – even if you’re fully aware of the drug’s dangers. When you smoke, sniff or inject heroin, opioid receptors in the brain respond by numbing pain. In addition to pain relief, the opioid effect triggers a cascade of molecular and chemical events in the brain, which ultimately generate strong associated feelings of intense pleasure.

However, a number of uncomfortable, short-term side effects may also result from heroin use3,4:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Severe itching.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Heavy sensation in the extremities.
  • Involuntary muscle movements.

  • Elevated body temperature.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Clouded mental functioning.
  • Slowed or irregular heart rate.
  • Suppressed breathing – which may result in death.

Long-Term Side Effects of Heroin

Long-term heroin use can cause permanent changes in your cognitive function, altering the way you learn and remember. When you’re actively using the drug, you may lose the ability to make good decisions or control your impulses. You may have trouble making plans for the future — unless those plans involve getting more heroin.

There are also a number of physical effects that may result from long-term heroin abuse4,5:

  • Lung problems (tuberculosis, pneumonia).
  • Unhealthy weight loss.
  • Liver disease.
  • Chronic insomnia.
  • Permanent damage to soft nasal tissue.
  • Collapsed veins.

  • Cardiac valve infection.
  • Chronic constipation.
  • Intestinal obstruction.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Irregular menstrual cycles.

Opiate drugs can also suppress your immune system, making you more likely to catch colds and develop other forms of infection. A preoccupation with getting and using the drug may additionally make users neglect basic nutrition, health care and hygiene.

Dangers of IV Drug Use

medical IV displayed in front of sunsetWhile intravenous (IV) injection is the most effective way to get an intense, nearly instantaneous rush of euphoria from heroin, all types of needle users – intravenous, intramuscular and subcutaneous – pay for that rush by risking their health in several deadly ways:

  • Exposure to blood-borne diseases. Heroin users often share needles and other IV drug paraphernalia, which puts them at risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis B or C. Hepatitis B and C can cause severe liver damage, interfering with your body’s ability to rid itself of toxins.
  • Damage to blood vessels. Heroin users may inject the drug several times a day, resulting in collapsed, hardened or scarred veins. Damaged veins restrict blood circulation to the area, which may interfere with wound healing.
  • Abscess or cellulitis formation. Using dirty needles or injecting into unclean skin may cause an infection of the subcutaneous tissues. The infected tissues may become inflamed and swollen (cellulitis) or may form a pus-filled pocket (abscess). If left untreated, an abscess or cellulitis can lead to tissue death, amputation or an infection that threatens your whole system.
  • Interactions with heroin additives. Street-level heroin is not pure; it’s almost always cut with one or more additives. Users who inject the drug are also injecting the substances used to dilute it. When your body responds to heroin, it also reacts to the additives used to cut the drug. In some cases, these reactions can be deadly.

Do You Know What You’re Getting When You Shoot Up?

Most IV heroin users don’t know exactly what they’re shooting into their veins. According to the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., some of the adulterant substances that are added to street heroin include6:

  • Sugar or sugar substitutes.
  • Cornstarch or other starches.
  • Strychnine – an extremely toxic substance used as a pesticide.
  • Quinine – a chemical used as a pain reliever and anti-malaria drug.
  • Fentanyl – a powerful synthetic narcotic painkiller.
  • Phenobarbital – a hepatotoxic sedative.
  • Caffeine.
  • Illicitly manufactured methaqualone.
  • Acetaminophen.

Heroin Overdose Risk

Overdosing is a big risk with any illegal drug, but the potency of heroin and its direct effects on the central nervous system make it especially dangerous.

In 2013, there were as many as 8,257 heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. – a number that more than doubled from 2010 when there were only 3,036 heroin overdose deaths.7 In one Swedish research study, it was found that those struggling with heroin addiction had death rates that were 63 times the rate of non-heroin users.8

Most IV drug users don’t know the strength of the heroin they’re taking – especially when heroin is cut with a range of unknown additives. As a result, it’s difficult to know how a given dose of the drug will affect you or perhaps even lead to overdose.

Overdose Signs and Symptoms

When you overdose on heroin, the body responds by9,10:

  • Slowing down your breathing – potentially resulting in respiratory arrest.
  • Slowing down your heart rate and dropping your blood pressure – leading to possible cardiovascular collapse.
  • Developing an irregular heart rate and rhythm – compromising the heart’s ability to provide sufficient blood flow to the brain and other organs. Possible cardiac arrest may result.
  • Causing backup of blood into the lungs from a failing heart – leading to possible pulmonary edema.
  • Becoming more susceptible to deadly infections (“infectious endocarditis”) on the heart muscle and lining.
  • Evoking profound mental status changes, including delirium.
  • Causing muscle spasms.
  • Falling unconscious or comatose.

Without immediate emergency medical treatment, a heroin overdose can lead to death. Users who have overdosed on heroin may need respiratory support, intravenous fluids and emergency medication to counteract the effects of the narcotic. If you’re with someone who’s overdosed – or you feel like you’ve taken too much heroin – call 911 immediately. Never try to handle an overdose alone.

Heroin Goes Suburban

arial view of suburban areaLike other illegal drugs, heroin has gone in and out of style over the years. At times this narcotic has held a deadly glamour because of its association with actors, models and musicians. In the 1990s, a look called “heroin chic” pervaded the fashion world. Pale models with emaciated limbs and dark circles under their eyes took center stage – displacing the healthy, athletic super models of the 1980s.

Because of its highly addictive, underground allure, heroin has traditionally appealed to teens and young adults who consider themselves outsiders. But more recently, heroin use has been on the rise among middle class, suburban teenagers, who consider heroin to be no more harmful than marijuana or beer.11

Who Is Today’s Average Heroin User?

According to a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry, today’s average heroin user is12:

  • 32 years old.
  • White.
  • Male.
  • From a small urban or rural region.

These days, heroin may be losing some of its illicit appeal as it joins the mainstream. But the growing acceptance of opiate drugs may turn out to be more dangerous than an admiration for “heroin chic.” When heroin use is no longer taboo, some of the obstacles to using this drug may fall away – increasing the potential for abuse and addiction.

Save Your Own Life

Getting treatment for heroin addiction may literally mean saving your own life. If you’ve become dependent on heroin, no one needs to tell you how hard it is to face the thought of giving it up. Losing heroin can feel like losing a relationship with a loved one — only this drug doesn’t love you back.

A “relationship” with heroin is a one-way love affair that will eventually end with you losing your health, your career, the people you care about and possibly your life.

Treatment Options

Treatment options for heroin addiction often include a period of physical detox – followed by some combination of group, individual or family counseling. Medications such as methadone or buprenorphine are sometimes used to help ease the detox and rehabilitation process. Residential rehab facilities provide the intensive treatment and supervision you may need when you’re going through withdrawal and starting the recovery process.

There are a few different types of rehabilitation options available for you to consider:

  • Luxury rehab facilities offer a number of extra lavish amenities in addition to standard residential addiction recovery.
  • Executive rehabs offer high-end amenities alongside residential addiction rehabilitation – but are also tailored to allow busy professionals to maintain active involvement in their place of work during treatment.
  • Standard or traditional addiction rehabilitation programs may be conducted on either an inpatient or an outpatient basis. Although they don’t typically come with the same range of plush amenities that luxury programs offer, they do come at a lower price point for those who can’t afford luxury rehab prices.

While the work of recovering is indeed a process that requires investment of time and money, saving your own life – or the life of a loved one – is absolutely worthwhile. Call us today at 1-888-744-0789 Who Answers? to make your first step towards recovery. Learn more about your rehabilitation options that will best suit your unique needs and circumstances.


  1. Kosten, T. R., O’Connor, P. G. (2003). Management of drug and alcohol withdrawal. New England Journal of Medicine, 348: 1786-1795.
  2. Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act. U. S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration.
  3. The Dangers of Heroin. Drugs-Forum.com
  4. Zacny, J. P. (1995). A review of the effects of opioids on psychomotor and cognitive functioning in humans. Ex Clin Psychopharmacol, 3(4), 43-466.
  5. Heroin. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  6. Understanding the Risks and Dangers of Heroin. (2011). Metropolitan Police Department.
  7. Compressed mortality file 1999-2013 on CDC WONDER Online Database. (2014). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.
  8. Gronbladh, L., Ohlund, L. S., Gunne, L. M. (1990). Mortality in heroin addiction: impact of methadone treatment. Acta Psychiatr Scand., 82(3), 223-7.
  9. The risk of heroin overdose. Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
  10. Christensen, J. How heroin kills you. CNN.
  11. Woliver, R. (2010). Heroin use among suburban teens grows because it’s ‘no big deal.’ Psychology Today.
  12. Cicero, T. J., Ellis, M. S., Surratt, H. L., Kurtz, S. P. (2014). The changing face of heroin use in the United States: A retrospective analysis of the past 50 years. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 821-826.

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