Heroin Addiction: Statistics, Symptoms and Effects

by | Last updated Jul 31, 2023 | Published on Jul 17, 2019 | Heroin | 2 comments


Heroin Addiction and Recovery

Many people find themselves addicted without ever having realized the path they were on. Often, people who abuse prescription opioids turn to heroin because of “its low cost and high availability.” (www.drugabuse.gov)

Once heroin becomes the drug of choice, regular use occurs, and tolerance begins to build. Because heroin is typically injected, its effects are felt almost immediately. Heroin’s method of use is one of its most addictive, and therefore dangerous, characteristics.

Addiction to heroin is a disease that can destroy lives. Taking the first step in seeking help to conquer this affliction is an accomplishment in itself. Treatment for heroin addiction is not fun or comfortable. With opioid addiction comes intense cravings and painful withdrawal symptoms.

A medically supervised treatment team can ensure that a patient gets the specialized treatment they need. Unique patients call for unique treatment plans and individual therapy. Selecting the right approach is your best bet to ensure a successful, long-term recovery.

The Effects of Heroin

Heroin is an illegal, Schedule I drug in the United States. Schedule I drugs, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, have no accepted medical use and are highly addictive. Heroin is an opioid, and it has effects on the brain and body that are similar to other prescription opioids such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

When someone uses heroin, it binds to and activates the opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are found throughout the body, but in particular in the central nervous system.

When the opioid receptors are activated, it can create a rush of euphoria and pleasurable feelings. Someone who’s just used heroin might feel a false sense of well-being, pain relief, and intense relaxation. Once the euphoria of heroin wears off, the person will feel drowsy and may nod off or fall asleep.

All of these effects are because heroin is a central nervous system depressant. Central nervous system depressants slow essential bodily functions including respiration and heart rate.

The effects of heroin are usually short-lived—especially the euphoria. For example, someone may feel euphoria and high from heroin for only a few minutes. The full effects of the heroin, such as drowsiness, may take hours to wear off.

Some of the short-term effects of heroin include:

  • A sense of heaviness in the extremities
  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Itching
  • Changes in mood
  • Constipation

How Heroin Affects the Brain

Along with the ways already talked about, heroin can affect the brain in other ways also.

When someone abuses heroin, they may not be able to experience pleasure in normal ways anymore. Even after someone stops using heroin, it can take a long time for the brain to repair itself and for the chemical systems to be restored to a sense of normalcy. This is why people experience symptoms of depression and anxiety long after they stop using heroin.

The long-term mental health effects of heroin and its effects on the brain can be challenging to deal with, but with professional treatment, this can be easier to manage.

To learn more about receiving treatment for heroin addiction and dependence, contact our team at Amethyst Recovery Center. Opioids like heroin affect certain neurotransmitters in the brain of the user. For example, heroin interacts with the dopamine neurotransmitter. This is why people feel euphoric when they use heroin. Dopamine is released into the bloodstream and brain at artificially high levels, and dopamine is dubbed a feel-good brain chemical.

Once someone’s brain has been exposed to the effects of heroin, it can trigger a reward response. This reward response means that the brain will continue to seek out the pleasurable stimuli. In this instance, that stimuli is heroin. This is how addiction is formed. The brain wants to continue using heroin, and the use of heroin becomes compulsive and out-of-control.

If someone is regularly using heroin, their brain becomes used to its presence. It then starts to adjust its own functionality to accommodate the presence of the effects of the heroin. This is known as drug dependence. When this occurs, if someone tries to stop using heroin, they will go through withdrawal symptoms.

Can Heroin Cause Brain Damage?

There are different ways that heroin can cause brain damage. When anyone is exposing their brain to a psychoactive substance, which heroin is, there is the potential that it will change how the reward system in the brain functions. This is what leads to addiction.

Heroin use can cause damage to the brain and changes in the function of the brain in specific areas. For example, researchers believe that heroin exposure can cause changes in behavior, decision-making, and thinking. These changes can be short- and long-term.

With heroin, the brain develops a tolerance to the drug very quickly. It can happen even using heroin only once. Drug tolerance means that someone’s brain and body need higher doses to achieve the same effect. Tolerance occurs so quickly with heroin because it’s a powerful, fast-acting drug and the brain creates additional opioid receptor sites when it’s exposed to the effects of heroin.

Someone who develops a tolerance for heroin may not even get high from the drug anymore, but they keep using it because they’re dependent on it.

When someone uses heroin, there are other ways it can affect the brain as well. For example, once someone uses the drug as was touched on, it slows their breathing. It may be fairly minimal with lower doses of heroin, and the person may not overdose, but whenever the respiratory system is slowed in any way, the brain receives less oxygen.

When someone’s brain isn’t receiving an adequate amount of oxygen, it can lead to brain damage.

Some research shows that abusing heroin can also cause brain damage with effects similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use?

Heroin is a psychoactive substance synthesized from the opium poppy plant. When someone uses heroin, it converts to morphine in their body. Morphine and other prescription opioids are used medically to relieve moderate to severe pain. Heroin can also relieve pain, but it has no accepted medical uses in the United States.

Instead, heroin is used as a recreational drug. When someone abuses heroin, it depresses the central nervous system. It can also create feelings of euphoria, and a pleasant feeling of well-being. The high heroin creates is why it’s so frequently abused.

Sometimes people may start out abusing prescription opioids, and then they then move to abusing heroin because it’s cheaper, easier to obtain and in some cases more potent.

Heroin binds to opioid receptors in the central nervous system when someone uses it. This activity is what creates the high associated with heroin, and also slows the central nervous system.

Over time, as the brain is exposed to these effects more and more, someone is likely to become not only addicted to heroin but also dependent on it. Heroin dependence indicates someone will have withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using it.

The signs and symptoms of heroin use can be physical and behavioral. Heroin use also quickly takes over a person’s life in many ways, so there are changes in their general mood and behavior that can be observed by people around them.

Sometimes the signs and symptoms of heroin abuse can vary depending on how someone abuses it as well. For example, if someone injects heroin, the physical signs of their abuse may be more obvious than for someone who uses it in other ways.

Physical Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

In technical terms, heroin abuse and addiction are not the same things. Heroin abuse doesn’t necessarily mean someone is addicted. However, heroin is highly addictive, and most people do become addicted very quickly. It’s rare that someone is abusing heroin without being addicted. Some of the physical symptoms of heroin addiction and signs of heroin abuse can include:

  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness, sedation or nodding off
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Itchiness
  • Small pupils

When someone is abusing heroin intravenously, they will also often have what are called track marks. These are places where the needle is going into their skin. Sometimes people with a heroin addiction will try to cover these marks with long pants or shirts, even when the weather wouldn’t call for it.

There is also certain paraphernalia associated with heroin use. Heroin is usually sold on the streets in a tan, off-white, brown or black color. Heroin needs to be liquefied if it’s going to be injected. Paraphernalia associated with this includes having aluminum foil, syringes and something like a shoestring that can be used to tie off the extremity where the person is going to inject it. If someone is smoking heroin, there may be glass or mental pipes found.

Behavioral Signs of a Heroin Addict

Psychological Signs of Heroin Usage in the Family

When someone uses heroin, the psychological signs can vary depending on a few factors. If someone has just used heroin, they will seem very euphoric for a fairly short period of time. Then, following that euphoria, the person will appear to be tired or extremely drowsy. Often, when someone uses heroin once the euphoria wears off, they will nod off and fall asleep.

Over time, people who are abusing heroin will start to show other symptoms. For example, someone who’s abusing heroin may showcase very extreme changes in mood such as aggression, or erratic behavior.

A person who is abusing heroin may also show signs of depression, anxiety or other mood and psychological-related changes.

Social Signs of a Heroin User (Work & Home)

When someone is using heroin or is abusing any drug, people typically start to notice that they become secretive. The person abusing heroin may start making excuses not to be around their loved ones, friends or co-workers. They may appear to be very closed off and may start spending a lot of time alone.

There may also be legal or financial consequences that start to occur either because of the things the person does while they’re high, or what they do in an attempt to get more money or more heroin.

When someone is using heroin, it will become their top priority. It would be very difficult for someone to be a functional heroin user. They would likely show declines in performance at school or work, and then eventually they would probably stop participating in their daily commitments altogether.

Heroin abuse can destroy relationships as well. A heroin addict will be very self-destructive and will appear to have a single-minded focus on heroin. This leads them to not care about the damage they do to their relationships.

When someone is addicted to heroin, they will continue to use it no matter the side effects or negative consequences it creates in their life.

What a Heroin Abuser’s Mood Is Like

A heroin abuser’s mood can seem to change very quickly. Someone who is abusing and addiction to heroin may one minute seem extraordinarily happy. Then, as the high wears off, they may appear to be depressed or have a down mood. Erratic changes in mood or behavior are often among the most apparent signs that someone could be using drugs.

If someone using heroin is confronted about their drug use, they will often very defensive or angry. They can seem irrational or confused as well.

Heroin Use is On the Rise

Heroin use and general opioid addiction is an epidemic that is overwhelming in North America. Over 350,000 lives have been lost to opioid overdoses since 1999 in the United States alone, and those numbers are continuing to rise.

As the numbers of those affected by the opioid crisis grow, so do the rehab centers that provide those afflicted an opportunity for recovery.

How Does Heroin Addiction Happen?

Heroin is at its core a dangerous and addictive drug with drastic effects related to both short and long-term use. Heroin is most commonly injected directly into the veins which intensify the effects and is felt immediately.

On the street, heroin’s potency is anything but regulated. This inconsistency can lead a user to inject a higher concentration of the drug without knowing, leading to accidental overdose. Once injected, heroin triggers the opioid receptors in the brain and dopamine is released.

The user will instantly have feelings of euphoric pleasure and content, momentarily relieving any unrest or sadness. The euphoria is followed by a slowing down of the body’s functions such as heart rate and breathing. All in all, the euphoric high lasts a few minutes, and the sluggishness thereafter can last a few hours or so.

What makes this drug so addictive is that very early on a user will begin to feel withdrawals and physical cravings for heroin when they aren’t high. These feelings are likened to a general sickness of the body and include symptoms such as:

  • Aches
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety

The only way to subdue these cravings is by use of the drug itself. The continued use of heroin intensifies the withdrawal symptoms, and the cycle continues. The withdrawal process is one example of the mental health aspects of drug abuse and addiction.

Detox in a treatment facility is how this cycle is most safely broken, and can often be the most challenging part of drug rehab.

What Are the Statistics for Heroin-Related Deaths in the United States?

The number of deaths in the United States related to heroin and other opioids have been going up dramatically in the past decade. The problem has become so bad that it’s referred to as the opioid crisis or the opioid epidemic. Policymakers, law enforcement officials and health officials are at a loss in many ways as to how to tackle the problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2016 there were almost 948,000 people in the U.S. aged 12 or older who reported using heroin in the year before the survey. Other heroin-related deaths and statistics include:

  • There were more than 81,000 emergency department visits in the U.S. in 2015 related to heroin poisonings. That is a rate of nearly 26 per every 100,000 people.
  • From 2010 to 2016, heroin-related deaths increased more than five times
  • During 2016 there were almost 15,500 people in America who died from overdoses related to heroin, which is a death rate of 5 for every 100,000 people
  • From 2015 to 2016, heroin overdose death rates went up almost 20 percent

Heroin can be a scary and overwhelming drug. It can and all too often does lead to overdose deaths. Rather than becoming a statistic, contact Amethyst Recovery Center.

Research on Success Rates and Statistics on Effectiveness

The first step when analyzing success rates of heroin rehab is determining what success means.

If you only look at relapse rates (between 40%-60%), you may view many patients’ attempt at a recovery as a failure, even though those rates are consistent across the board for many mental disorders and physical diseases.

Drug addiction often disrupts a patient’s entire life. Beyond the physical use of the drug, addicts often lose their jobs, abandon their social networks, and slip out of their functioning role in society.

This means that gauging the success of treatment also has to take these same aspects into account.

If a person builds a healthy, functional, and fulfilling life for themselves; they are more likely to avoid a relapse and be ready to seek help if one occurs. In a lot of ways, that should be acknowledged as a success.

Drug Use Before Heroin

Heroin Rehab Centers

Because the effects of heroin mirror other opioids, prescription drug abuse commonly precedes heroin addiction.

“Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin
(including those in treatment) reported misusing prescription opioids first.” (www.drugabuse.gov)

Finding and paying for heroin on the street is easier and cheaper than illegal prescription drugs. Heroin users quickly develop a strong tolerance that requires they use more of the drug to achieve the same high.

This leads to heavy long-term abuse and dangerous situations because of the inconsistent purity levels of heroin found on the street.

Having the aid of professionals along with medical supervision provided in heroin rehabs will give you the best chance of success in overcoming this mental illness.

There are several different types of drug rehab programs available.


Written by: Justin Kunst

Written by: Justin Kunst

As a member of the Amethyst Recovery Center marketing team, Justin Kunst dedicated his time to curating powerful content that would reach and impact individuals and families who are struggling with substance abuse.


  1. Jackson Bush

    Its good to know that heroin addiction symptoms include small pupils, itchy skin, and vomiting. My son has been throwing up a lot and has itchy skin recently and my wife and I are wondering why he’s been acting so sick. I’ll be sure to ask him if he has any history of using heroin.

  2. Shirley

    Very informative! knowing this kind of detail is important. Any kind of Abuse is not good for us especially drugs, its a good deed that you shared your article with us, you did a good job cheers!


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