Call 561-272-0800

Heroin Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, Effects, Types and Treatment Options

Heroin addiction is the continuous use of heroin despite adverse effects on the health of the user. It is a significant public health concern in the United States. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2021, an estimated 0.4% (or about 1.1 million people) aged 12 or older reported using heroin in the past 12 months. Of that number, an estimated 0.4% (or about 1.0 million people) aged 12 or older had a heroin use disorder in the past 12 months. 

Heroin addiction typically starts as an experimental use of the drug. This often leads to tolerance and dependence on it. Family history and mental health issues are also factors associated with causes of full-blown heroin addiction.

Heroin addiction displayed various signs and symptoms. Common ones include weight loss, poor hygiene, bruises, and forgetfulness. They also can show loss of interest, mood swings, etc. The effects of heroin addiction can range from short-term effects like black spots and bruises from injections to more severe long-term effects like heart failure, mental health disorders, and kidney disease. 

Treatments for heroin addiction include detox, and inpatient or outpatient therapy. Some patients also benefit from medications like methadone and naltrexone.

What is Heroin? 

Heroin is an opioid drug, a class of substances that act on the brain’s receptors to produce feelings of pleasure and pain relief. It’s derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance found in the opium poppy plant. These poppies are primarily grown in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia.

Heroin is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This means that it has a high potential for abuse and is currently not accepted for medical use in the United States under any circumstances.

Heroin itself can appear in various forms. It can be a white or brown powder, but it’s also sometimes encountered as a black, sticky substance known as “black tar heroin.” Regardless of its appearance, the dangers of heroin remain the same.

Is Heroin Addictive? 

Yes, heroin is highly addictive. It is one of the most addictive substances known. Heroin is an opioid drug, which means it works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are involved in the body’s perception of pain and pleasure. When heroin binds to these receptors, it produces a feeling of intense euphoria, or rush. This rush is what makes heroin so addictive.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines heroin addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder where the individual involved compulsively seeks out heroin and uses it despite adverse consequences to their physical, behavioral, and psychological well-being.

This means that heroin addiction is a long-term disease that can keep coming back (relapsing) even after treatment. People with heroin addiction have a strong urge to use heroin, even though they know it’s harmful to them. 

How does Heroin Addiction develop? 

Heroin addiction takes hold through a combination of the drug’s powerful effects on the brain and various contributing factors. Here’s a breakdown of the process:

  • The Initial Reward: Heroin floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This creates an intense feeling of euphoria, which the brain craves to repeat.
  • Tolerance and Dependence: With repeated use, the brain adapts to heroin’s presence, reducing the pleasurable effects. This leads to tolerance, where users need higher doses to achieve the same high. Dependence develops alongside tolerance. The body becomes reliant on heroin to function normally, causing withdrawal symptoms like muscle aches, nausea, and intense cravings when it’s not present.
  • The Cycle of Cravings and Use: To avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, users continue taking heroin, even if they want to quit. This reinforces the addiction cycle. The intense cravings can be overwhelming, leading users to prioritize obtaining and using heroin over other aspects of life, like work, relationships, and health.
  • Contributing Factors: Several factors can increase the risk of heroin addiction, including:
    • Genetics: Some individuals have a genetic predisposition to addiction.
    • Mental health issues: Depression, anxiety, and trauma can make people more susceptible to self-medication with drugs.
    • Environmental stressors: Poverty, violence, and social isolation can contribute to substance abuse.
    • Peer pressure: Starting heroin with friends or in a social setting can increase the risk.
  • Progression of Addiction: Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. Over time, it can lead to:
    • Increased heroin use and risky behaviors to obtain it.
    • Neglecting responsibilities and damaging relationships.
    • Health problems like infections, organ damage, and overdose.

What are the symptoms of a Heroin Addiction? 

Heroin abuse wreaks havoc on a person’s life. It’s often hidden, but there are distinct warning signs that shouldn’t be ignored for yourself and someone you care about.

Physical Signs and Symptoms 

  • Weight Loss: Heroin can significantly impact appetite, leading to noticeable weight loss.
  • Poor Hygiene: Neglecting personal hygiene due to lethargy or lacking motivation becomes common.
  • Physical Changes: Drowsiness, pinpoint pupils, constantly runny nose, and excessive scratching (itching is a frequent symptom) are all potential signs.

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms

  • Changes in Personality and Attitude: A shift in personality, becoming more withdrawn or irritable, can be a red flag.
  • Shifting Social Circle: New friends involved in drug use or distancing from old friends who may disapprove are signs of concern.
  • Loss of Interest: Hobbies and extracurricular activities may be abandoned as heroin takes priority.
  • Declining Performance: Work or school performance suffers due to decreased focus and motivation.
  • Social Withdrawal: Isolating oneself and avoiding family and friends becomes a pattern.
  • Secrecy: Increased secretive behavior surrounding activities and possessions is a warning sign.
  • Mood Swings: Erratic mood swings, ranging from intense highs to deep lows, are common.

Psychological Signs and Symptoms

  • Emotional Instability: Heroin use can lead to extreme emotional highs and lows, making it difficult to manage emotions.
  • Confused Thinking: Difficulty concentrating, problems with memory, and overall confusion become evident.
  • Mental Health Issues: Depression, anxiety, and excessive worry or fear can be present, or worsened by heroin use.
  • Hallucinations: In severe cases, hallucinations may occur as a result of heroin abuse.
  • Suicidal Thoughts: The despair and hopelessness caused by addiction can lead to suicidal thoughts. 

What can cause a Heroin Addiction? 

Heroin addiction is a complex issue with no single cause. It’s more like a perfect storm brewing from several factors:

  • Genetics: A family history of addiction increases your vulnerability. If a parent, sibling, or other close relative struggles with addiction, you’re more likely to do as well. Also, research by Levran O, Londono D, et al. titled ‘Genetic susceptibility to heroin addiction: a candidate gene association study’ in 2008 shows that there are genes associated with an increased risk of heroin addiction. However, genes aren’t a death sentence – they just raise the risk.
  • Brain Chemistry: Repeated heroin use disrupts your brain’s pleasure system. Neurons, the brain’s communication network, get messed up, leaving you craving more heroin just to feel okay. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Environmental Influences: Your surroundings can be a major player. Growing up in a household where drug use is common or having friends who pressure you can significantly increase your risk of starting to use heroin. Also, an environment that allows for easy access to heroin promotes heroin addiction.
  • Mental Health Issues: People struggling with undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions like depression or anxiety might use heroin as a form of self-medication.  Unfortunately, heroin only makes things worse in the long run. 

What can prevent a Heroin Addiction?

There’s no single guaranteed way to prevent heroin addiction, but here are some key strategies that can significantly reduce the risk:

Education and Awareness

  • Early education: Open and honest conversations about drugs and addiction, particularly during adolescence, can equip young people with the knowledge and skills to make informed choices.
  • Community awareness programs: Spreading awareness about the dangers of heroin use through educational campaigns and community events can help deter potential users.

Reducing Risk Factors

  • Addressing mental health: Untreated mental health issues like depression and anxiety can increase vulnerability to self-medicating with drugs. Early intervention and access to mental health resources are crucial.
  • Promoting healthy coping mechanisms: Teaching healthy ways to manage stress, anxiety, and emotional pain can lessen the appeal of using drugs to cope. 
  • Building life skills: Developing strong social connections, fostering resilience, and learning positive coping mechanisms can empower individuals to resist drug use.

Limiting Access

  • Prescription drug monitoring: Stricter regulations for prescribing opioid painkillers can help prevent misuse and the potential gateway to heroin use.
  • Harm reduction strategies: Providing access to clean needles and syringe exchange programs can help prevent the spread of diseases among users and potentially encourage them to seek treatment. 

Strengthening Support Systems

  • Strong families and communities: Nurturing positive and supportive family and social environments can provide a sense of belonging and reduce the risk of turning to drugs.
  • Treatment accessibility: Making evidence-based addiction treatment programs readily available and affordable is crucial for those struggling with heroin use.

What Risk Has a Heroin Addiction? 

Heroin addiction wreaks havoc on your body and mind, with effects that worsen the longer you abuse the drug. Here’s a breakdown of the common consequences, categorized by how quickly they typically appear:

Short-Term Effects (Occur Soon After Use):

  • Clouded mental functioning: Difficulty thinking, confusion, impaired judgment.
  • Respiratory depression: Slowed breathing, which can be life-threatening in high doses.
  • Collapsed veins: Especially common with injection use, leading to scarring and difficulty finding injection sites.
  • Skin infections and abscesses: Contaminated needles or injection sites can lead to skin infections and abscesses.
  • Overdose: Heroin overdose can lead to coma, respiratory failure, and death.

Long-Term Effects (Develop Over Time with Continued Use):

  • Liver disease: The book, LiverTox by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) shows that heroin abuse damages the liver, increasing the risk of hepatitis and liver failure. 
  • Heart problems: Damage to the heart valves and lining can occur, increasing the risk of heart infections and other complications. Seltenhammer MH, Marchart K, et al in 2013 showed in their work ‘Micromorphological changes in cardiac tissue of drug-related deaths with emphasis on chronic illicit opioid abuse’ that there is a long-term risk of cardiac dysfunction associated with continued illicit use of opioids as a principal component. Heroin users also inject it directly into their bloodstream putting them at risk for Infective Endocarditis.
  • HIV, Hepatitis B, and C: Sharing needles or other drug use equipment significantly increases the risk of contracting these blood-borne diseases.
  • Chronic pneumonia: Heroin weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to lung infections like pneumonia.
  • Blood clots: Heroin use can increase the risk of blood clots, which can lead to stroke, pulmonary embolism, or heart attack.
  • Kidney disease: Heroin abuse can damage the kidneys, leading to kidney failure. In 2013, Singh VP, Singh N, and Jaggi AS in their work ‘A review on renal toxicity profile of common abusive drugs’ showed that heroin addicts have an increased risk of membranous nephropathy, nephrotic syndrome, acute glomerulonephritis, focal and segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) amyloidosis, interstitial nephritis, and rhabdomyolysis.
  • Seizures: In severe cases, heroin addiction can increase the risk of seizures.
  • Mental health problems: Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can worsen with heroin addiction.
  • Increased risk of contracting chronic illnesses: A weakened immune system makes you more susceptible to other illnesses.
  • Septicemia: A serious blood infection that can be fatal.

Can you quit using Heroin? 

Yes, quitting heroin use is possible, but it’s important to understand it’s a very challenging process. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Difficulty
    • Heroin is highly addictive, both physically and psychologically. 
    • Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and uncomfortable, making quitting on your own very difficult.
  • The Path to Recovery: Quitting heroin requires a multi-pronged approach with professional help.
    • Medical Detoxification: This supervised program helps manage withdrawal symptoms with medication and minimizes discomfort.
  • Therapy: Understanding the root causes of your addiction and developing coping mechanisms is crucial to prevent relapse. Therapy can equip you with the tools to manage triggers and cravings.
  • Support Groups: Connecting with others in recovery provides encouragement, accountability, and a sense of community. Narcotics Anonymous is a valuable resource.
  • Why you can succeed
    • Many people have successfully overcome heroin addiction with the right support.
    • Treatment options are effective in managing withdrawal and addressing the underlying causes of addiction.
    • There are resources available to help you through every step of the recovery process.
  • Here’s what you can do
    • Reach out for help: Don’t hesitate to contact a doctor, addiction specialist, or a helpline.
    • Commit to treatment:  Follow through with detox and therapy programs.
    • Build a support system: Surround yourself with positive people who can support your recovery.

What are the Withdrawal Effects of Heroin? 

Heroin withdrawal is a notoriously difficult and uncomfortable experience. People who stop using heroin after becoming dependent will experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect:

Onset and Timeline

  • Withdrawal symptoms typically begin within 6-24 hours after the last heroin use.
  • The most intense symptoms usually peak within 48-72 hours.
  • The overall withdrawal process can last from days to weeks, although some protracted symptoms like cravings may linger for months.


  • Physical Symptoms:
    • Intense drug cravings
    • Restlessness and agitation
    • Anxiety and irritability
    • Muscle aches and pains
    • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
    • Chills, sweating, and fever
    • Insomnia and trouble sleeping
    • Runny nose, watery eyes, and yawning
    • Stomach cramps and abdominal pain
    • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Psychological Symptoms:
    • Depression and feelings of hopelessness
    • Difficulty concentrating and focusing
    • Irritability and mood swings
    • Fatigue and lack of energy
    • Increased risk of relapse due to intense cravings

Important Considerations To Note

  • The severity of withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the individual’s history of heroin use, the amount they were using, and their overall health.
  • Heroin withdrawal can be dangerous, especially for people with underlying health conditions.  
  • Medical detox is highly recommended to manage withdrawal symptoms safely and comfortably. Detoxification can involve medications to help alleviate some of the physical discomfort and cravings.

What treatment options are there for Heroin addiction? 

Heroin addiction is a powerful force, but there is hope for recovery. Here’s a breakdown of the various treatment options available:

Detoxification (Detox)

This is the first step, helping your body safely rid itself of heroin. Detox can be uncomfortable, so medical supervision is crucial to manage withdrawal symptoms and keep you safe. Medications can also help ease the discomfort.

Individual Therapy

Therapy is a vital part of recovery, helping you understand the underlying reasons behind your heroin use and develop healthy coping mechanisms. This can include addressing co-occurring mental health issues like depression.

Inpatient Rehab

This intensive program offers a structured environment away from triggers and distractions. Here, you’ll receive daily therapy, support groups, and activities tailored to your needs. Inpatient programs typically last 30-90 days, but can be longer.

  • Benefits: Provides complete focus on recovery, eliminates external temptations, and offers 24/7 support.
  • Considerations: Requires a larger time commitment and can be disruptive to work or personal life.

Outpatient Rehab

This option allows you to live at home while attending therapy sessions and support groups. It’s generally recommended for individuals with milder addictions who have a strong support system at home.

  • Benefits: Offers more flexibility and allows you to maintain some aspects of your daily life.
  • Considerations: Requires strong self-discipline to resist triggers and stay committed to the program.


Medications can play a crucial role in managing cravings and preventing relapse. Here are some common options:

  • Buprenorphine (Subutex, Suboxone): This partial opioid agonist reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms, helping you stay stable.
  • Methadone (Dolophine): A stronger opioid used to prevent withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Methadone is typically used for long-term treatment due to its potential for dependence.
  • Naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol): This medication blocks the effects of heroin, making it ineffective if you use it.

The Importance of Aftercare

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. After completing rehab, ongoing support is essential to prevent relapse. Consider:

  • Therapy: Regular therapy sessions can help identify triggers, develop coping mechanisms, and strengthen your commitment to sobriety.
  • Support Groups: Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Heroin Anonymous (HA) offer a network of support from others who understand your struggles.

How do you prevent a relapse? 

Overcoming heroin addiction is a monumental achievement, but the journey doesn’t end there. Relapse is a significant risk, but with the right strategies and support system, you can significantly increase your chances of staying heroin-free. Here are some key steps you can take.

Maintain a Strong Support System

  • Therapy: Regular therapy sessions can help you identify triggers, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and address underlying issues that may contribute to cravings.
  • Support Groups: Surround yourself with others who understand your struggles. Groups like Narcotics Anonymous offer a safe space to share experiences, gain encouragement, and hold yourself accountable.
  • Friends and Family: Connect with loved ones who support your recovery and can offer emotional support.

Develop Healthy Habits

  • Exercise: Physical activity is a powerful tool to manage stress, improve mood, and boost overall well-being.
  • Healthy Diet: Eating nutritious foods provides your body and brain with the fuel they need to stay strong and support recovery.
  • Good Sleep Hygiene: Develop a consistent sleep schedule and practice relaxation techniques to ensure quality sleep, which is crucial for overall health and relapse prevention.

Identify and Manage Triggers

  • People and Places: Avoid situations or people associated with your past heroin use. If certain places or people are too tempting, consider removing yourself from those environments.
  • Emotional Triggers: Learn to identify situations or emotions that trigger cravings. Develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, anxiety, or boredom, so you don’t turn to heroin.

Seek Help Immediately

  • Cravings are a normal part of recovery.  Don’t be discouraged if they arise. The important thing is to have a plan for managing them. Talk to your therapist or sponsor about coping strategies when cravings become intense.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or at risk of relapse.  A relapse doesn’t define you. It’s an opportunity to recommit to your recovery journey.

We Can Help

If I need professional support in overcoming heroin addiction,we at Olympic Behavioral Health offers comprehensive treatment programs designed to address the physical and psychological aspects of addiction. We have a team of experienced professionals who can help me develop a personalized recovery plan and guide me toward a healthier future.  

By following these tips and seeking help when needed, you can significantly reduce your risk of relapse and build a strong foundation for lasting recovery.

Adam Siegel
View All Posts
Adam is the lead addiction therapist at Olympic Behavioral Health and has been in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Adam earned his associate degree in Applied Science for Chemical Dependency Counseling from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, in 2009 and became a Certified Addiction Counselor in 2016. He is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work Program at Florida Atlantic University to obtain his MSW. Adam is also in long term sobriety which allows him to relate with patients on a deeper level.

Share This Post

Contact Us

If you or a loved one is grappling with addiction, don’t face it alone. Olympic Behavioral Health is here to guide you on the path to recovery. With a compassionate team and a proven approach, we’re dedicated to helping you reclaim your life. Reach out to Olympic Behavioral Health today and take the first step towards a brighter, addiction-free future. Your journey to healing begins with a single call. Please reach out to us today at 561-272-0800 to book your appointment! And start your healing journey at our convenient facility.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Get Addiction Help Now 561-272-0800

Representatives available now.