What is Heroin

Heroin is an illegal drug derived from morphine which is made from the opium poppy plant. It is referred to as an opiate drug or narcotic drug. It has extremely potent pain-killing properties and causes depression of the central nervous system. It is highly addictive, with approximately one-fourth of all users becoming addicted to the drug, according to statistics posted on Healthy Place, America’s Mental Health Channel1. Not only known for its addictive qualities, it is also known to cause a significant number of overdoses, quite frequently fatal.

Statistics on Heroin Addiction and Use

According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World2, approximately 200,000 people in the United States can be classified as being addicted to heroin, though up to 700,000 people are not receiving necessary treatment for heroin dependence and addiction issues. More than 1 million people use the drug at least occasionally in this country alone.

How Heroin Can Be Used

heroinHeroin can be found in a powder that is either brownish or white, or as a tar-like substance. The Partnership at Drugfree.org3 notes that there are many different ways to use it, with no one way being less harmful or offer less a chance of addiction than the others. These methods include:

  • inject into a vein
  • inject into a muscle
  • smoke in a pipe
  • smoke with marijuana or tobacco
  • inhale the smoke through a straw
  • snort

Risks of Using Heroin

There are many risks associated with heroin and its use. According to BBC Health4, these risks may include:

  • becoming addicted
  • increased tolerance
  • withdrawal
  • overdose
  • hepatitis
  • hiv/aids
  • gangrene
  • lung damage
  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • weight loss/malnutrition
  • so many more

Short Term Effects of Heroin Use

Short-term effects of heroin use begin with a feeling of euphoria followed by a heaviness combined with dry mouth and a warm flushing of the skin. Shortly after, a heroin user will alternate between periods of extreme wakefulness with periods of falling asleep. A  user may talk and walk as if drinking alcohol as the central nervous system becomes affected by the drug.

Long Term Effects

With increased use comes increased tolerance, or the need for more heroin to get the same results. After a time, withdrawal symptoms occur, causing more and more use of the drug. This then leads to an increased risk of overdose or addiction. Anyone who uses heroin, even only occasionally, can fall into the trap of long-term use. Other long-term effects of heroin use include collapsed veins, liver disease, lung problems and poor overall health.

Signs of Use

sudden changes in behavior, friends, work or school habits, presence of needles or other drug paraphernalia, burned foil, gum wrappers, or silver spoons, missing shoelaces, withdrawal from family and friends, lack of hygiene, marks on the arms, thighs, or other areas of the body, and any other number of changes that seem out of character or that are disturbing.

How Users become Addicted

Addiction occurs after long-term use of the drug. The heroin binds with certain receptors in the brain similar to natural endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. After using heroin for a length of time, the body stops producing these natural chemicals. So now the user is taking heroin just to keep from feeling bad, it is no longer just about feeling good. This continues the use and soon the individual may become dependent or addicted.

Risk Factors for Addiction

As with any type of drug, the risk factors associated with addiction to heroin include the following:

  • family history/genetic predisposition
  • abuse or neglect
  • trauma
  • mental illness
  • early drug use

Signs of Addiction to Heroin

Signs of addiction to heroin are similar to addiction to any harmful substance. These symptoms include intense cravings for the drug, risk-taking behaviors, spending more time obtaining, using, and recovering from the drug, neglecting responsibilities, and continuing to use even when the drug use is causing problems in life.


Withdrawal from heroin is an extremely painful process that generally prevents the user from quitting or attempting to quit the drug use. It may also lead to overdose as the user tries to take enough of the drug to remove the horrible feelings of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin include:

  • aching in bones and muscles
  • intense sweating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • chills/cold sweats
  • heart attack
  • fever
  • seizures coma
  • death

It is important for those withdrawal from heroin to seek medical assistance. Medications can be used to help alleviate some of the painful withdrawal symptoms while the body adjusts to being without the drug.


It is estimated that between 50 – 70 percent of intro-venous heroin users have had a non-fatal overdose1, though overdose can be fatal. According to the National Institute of Health5, some of the signs of heroin overdose include:

  • shallow/difficult/no breathing
  • discolored tongue/skin/nails
  • low blood pressure
  • weak pulse
  • delirium
  • coma
  • death

Overdose on heroin is a life-threatening situation and needs immediate treatment by emergency personnel.

Overcoming heroin should be done in a qualified in-patient treatment facility where withdrawal and treatment can be monitored and assistance can be provided.