Long Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

27 Mar Long Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

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The long term effects of heroin use and abuse can be extremely severe and debilitating. And because heroin is so addictive, the likelihood of a heroin habit turning into a long-term pattern of abuse is very high.

The truth is that long-term use of heroin changes the structure of the brain effectively rewiring how an individual processes rewards and motivations. This can have devastating effects that lead to a feedback loop ending in addiction of increasing severity.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What heroin is and why it’s so dangerous
  • What Heroin Use Disorder is and how dependence differs from addiction
  • Some of the prevalent long-term effects of heroin abuse
  • Withdrawal symptoms of heroin that occur when quitting
  • How to find a heroin detox center

When it comes to heroin long term effects, the sooner you can start the recovery process the less likely serious complications will occur. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, call our recovery specialists today to discuss your options.

What is Heroin?

Though most people are familiar with heroin on a basic level, many people don’t know much more than that heroin is a drug that’s often injected. It is also known for being one of the most addictive drugs on the streets, experts saying that a single use of heroin can cause an addiction in some individuals. When trying to understand the long term effects of heroin, it’s important to know a bit about the drug.

Heroin is an opioid narcotic that is derived from the opium poppy. Opium is similar to heroin though less potent.

While most people know this drug as being administered through injection, Heroin can be smoked, sniffed, or snorted. Some individuals will even mix heroin and other substances. The effects of heroin with other drugs can be extremely dangerous and often leads to be fatal.

The DEA classifies heroin as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other opiates, such as methadone and fentanyl are Schedule II since they are used to treat a variety of pain conditions. Learn how long does heroin stay in your urine.

Read on to learn about the dangers of heroin.

Why is Heroin Use so Dangerous?

There are a number of reasons heroin use is considered dangerous. The most prominent being the risk of overdose and possible death.

The reason heroin brings such a high risk of overdose is because of the relative potency among different batches. The difference in potency comes from different processing methods and of course drug dealers “cutting” batches with other substances.

Cutting refers to when a drug dealer adds a substance to a drug to make their supply cheaper. Heroin can be cut with anything from sugar and powdered milk (which can cause clogged blood vessels when injected) to fentanyl (which greatly increases the risk of overdose). Today, many deadly overdoses are the result of drugs laced with fentanyl.

Heroin overdose can be treated with medication, but even if treated and not fatal, overdose can lead to permanent brain injury or coma. With the number of synthetic opiates and the number of associated overdose death increasing, it’s likely that heroin overdose will continue to become a rising problem.

The good news is that due to the increase in media coverage, many law and health officials are discussing ways to battle the heroin and opiate crisis in the United States. Sadly, there are still hundreds of thousands of Americans affected by Heroin Abuse Disorder.

What is Heroin Abuse Disorder?

According to DrugAbuse.gov, “A substance abuse disorder (SUD) is when continued use of the drug causes issues, such as health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. A SUD can range from mild to severe, the most severe being addiction.”

Before we discuss Heroin Abuse Disorder in depth, it may be helpful to talk about the difference between drug dependence and drug addiction.

Drug dependence is when withdrawal effects are experienced when drug use is discontinued. These effects can range from mild to severe depending on the history of drug use.  For example, a back surgery patient may be prescribed morphine by their doctor and develop a drug dependence throughout the course of treatment. This is why doctors often wean patients off of strong painkillers.

Drug addiction, on the other hand, is when a person uses drugs even when their drug use is causing adverse effects to their health or to their social or professional life. For example, ruining relationships or losing jobs in favor of seeking drugs.

Being dependent on a drug does not mean you’re addicted, though dependence often leads to addiction. Drug dependence can be treated at a drug detox center with the help of medication.

Drug addiction, on the other hand, generally takes a variety of medication and behavioral therapies to treat effectively.

Heroin Use Disorder

Heroin Use Disorder is a disease that goes beyond just dependence. It’s characterized by addictive behaviors, chronic episodes of relapse, and uncontrollable drug seeking in the face of extremely negative consequences.

Heroin Use Disorder, like other drug use disorders, is considered a disease, specifically a disease of the brain. Heroin Use Disorder ranges from relatively mild, with a user experiencing negative but not debilitating consequences (these are sometimes called “functional addicts”) to extremely severe. In the most severe cases, seeking and using heroin becomes a person’s primary purpose in life.

And the simple fact is that heroin use is sharply on the rise. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly 1 million Americans reported using heroin in 2016.  This number has been on the rise since 2007, and according to NSDUH, “this trend appears to be driven largely by young adults aged 18-25 among whom there have been the greatest increases.”

Also on the rise is the number of people who qualify as being dependent on heroin or suffering from Heroin Use Disorder. This number rose from 214,000 in 2012 to 626,000 in 2016. That means that over half-a-million people are dependent on or addicted to heroin in the US today.

Minor Effects of Heroin Abuse

As with most things, heroin abuse effects change the longer you use the drug for. Some of the short term effects of heroin abuse and addiction are:

  • Dry mouth and dehydration
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Constipation
  • Foggy thinking
  • Extreme itching
  • “Nodding out” or losing consciousness repeatedly
  • Confusion
  • Mood swings

Some of the long term effects of heroin abuse include:

  • Insomnia or restlessness
  • Collapsed veins from drug injections
  • Chronic infections or illnesses
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Depression, anxiety, and other extreme emotions
  • Extreme mood swings and paranoia
  • Male sexual dysfunction
  • Impotence

Of course, these are just some of the minor long term effects. Heroin has some serious effects that can change a users life forever. We’ll cover these in the next section.

Severe Effects of Heroin Abuse

Because heroin interacts with the brain, a lot of the most severe long term effects come from changes in the brain structure that result in physical, cognitive, and behavioral effects for the user.

Though it takes time, these changes in the brain are usually difficult to reverse even when drug use has stopped. Other severe effects can have implications that last a lifetime. For example, overdose can cause minor to severe brain injury.

Continue reading to learn more about the details of these major effects.

Changes to the Brain Structure

Drug addiction can be a vicious cycle. Drugs, such as heroin, change your brain structure making normally pleasurable things much less pleasurable.

When normal life becomes less pleasurable, the drug user usually seeks out more of the drug creating even more changes to the brain.

In addition, these changes can have effects on the hormonal system that cause a number of health complications. It can also lead to feeling extremely lethargic which decreases the person’s drive to overcome their addiction.

This long term change in the brain structure is why a recovered addict can relapse years after quitting drug use. However, with a plan and the right support structure, any addict can overcome a heroin addiction.

Reduction of the Brains White Matter

In addition to changing the structure of the brain where reward and motivation occurs, heroin is also known to reduce the white matter in the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations.

Deterioration of white matter in this part of the brain is known to reduce a person’s ability to exert willpower and change their habits. It’s also a reason why drug users often seek drugs during stressful times.

Because the part of the brain that responds to stressful stimuli is weakened, the user must find external coping mechanisms. This leads to a further reduction in white matter which only continues the cycle.

Tolerance and Physical Dependence

According to DrugAbuse.gov, “When drugs such as heroin are used repeatedly over time, tolerance may develop. Tolerance occurs when the person no longer responds to the drug in the way that person initially responded. Stated another way, it takes a higher dose of the drug to achieve the same level of response achieved initially.”

As drug use continues the amount needed to get high increases. As the amount used increases, the effects heroin has on the brain and nervous system worsens. Because the heroin acts on the part of the brain responsible for pleasure, users often don’t find joy in activities that used to make them happy.

This again makes them turn towards drugs to get relief. This is why drug users often replace healthy activities, like running or art, with drug use.

Overdose and Other Medical Complications

Of course, one of the most heavily felt effects from heroin abuse is overdose and death. An overdose or death can affect a whole community.

As mentioned, death isn’t the only negative outcome of overdose. Injuries, brain trauma, organ damage, and more can occur during a heroin overdose.

In addition, heroin can raise a person’s risk of various diseases, such as HIV and other infectious diseases if the user injects the drug and shares needles.

Dependence and Withdrawal

Most heroin users who quit using the drug will undergo moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms. A number of factors affect how intense an individual’s withdrawal will be. More intense withdrawals are more common in users who have a long history of drug use, have used large quantities of the drug in recent weeks, or commonly use other drugs alongside heroin.

Heroin withdrawal may occur within just a few hours of last use, but may not occur until 24 hours or more. Symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Restlessness and insomnia
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Cold flashes
  • Body tremors and other uncontrollable movements
  • Dehydration
  • Extreme cravings
  • Extreme emotions and mood swings

Withdrawal symptoms generally peak 24-48 hours after last use and subside over a week or so. In more severe cases, effects can be felt for many weeks or even months.

How to Safely Go Through Withdrawal

The safest, most comfortable, and most effective way to go through heroin withdrawal is at a medically-supervised drug detox center. Georgia Detox offers inpatient and outpatient medical detox programs depending on the needs and circumstances of each individual patient.

Medically-assisted heroin detox consists of weaning a user off the drug over a period of time. This way the withdrawal is never too intense or dangerous. If the withdrawal is severe, medications and other therapies can be given.

For example, dehydration can be a problem when withdrawing from heroin. This can be made worse if vomiting or diarrhea were to occur. If this happens at a drug detox center, IVs can easily be given to replace lost fluid.

After detoxing, patients usually attend a drug rehab program that helps them learn and integrate healthy habits into their daily life.

Drug rehab programs give a structured, drug-free environment for users to relearn how to live without the burden of addiction. There are a variety of drug rehab centers in Georgia, so be sure to find one that works with your specific needs and conditions.

If you’re not sure where to start, call our recovery specialists today to learn about our many drug detox programs.


NIDA. “What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019

NIDA. “What is the Scope of Heroin Use in the United States?” National Institute on Drug Abuse 8 Jun. 2018,

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019

NIDA, “The Neurobiology of Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2 Jan. 2007

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/6-definition-tolerance. Accessed 20 Mar. 2019

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