Understanding Heroin Addiction

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use. Drugs like heroin alter the structure and function of the brain, which may result in addiction. Heroin abuse may also lead to a physical dependence on the drug, which is characterized by increased tolerance, cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

A person suffering from heroin addiction (opioid use disorder) may use the drug, despite the fact that it’s causing major problems with their health, career, academic or family life. People abusing heroin don’t necessarily do so to hurt themselves or their family members. Once addicted to heroin, it’s very difficult to quit and avoid relapse without proper treatment.


There isn’t a straightforward reason that some people are able to leave heroin alone after trying it, while others are not. This is partly because heroin addiction has environmental, biological, psychological and social factors. The reason behind heroin abuse may stem from childhood trauma, injury, a mental disorder or simply a person’s desire to fit in.

Some people become addicted to painkillers such as hydrocodone or oxycodone, then change over to heroin because it’s cheaper and may be easier to obtain. Nearly 80 percent of people who use heroin report having first misused prescription opioids. Others may use heroin to cope with a mental illness such as depression, bipolar or anxiety disorder.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive opiate, naturally-derived from morphine, which originates from the opium poppy plant. Heroin is so potent that an individual may become addicted to it after just one use. Heroin commonly appears as a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black-tar heroin.

Street names for heroin include:

  • H
  • Brown
  • Junk
  • Smack
  • Dope
  • Horse

Heroin is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which means that it slows down the brain and other related circuitry. Heroin slows down breathing levels, heart rate, blood flow and lowers body temperature. Too much heroin causes the body to shut down and may lead to overdose, which can be fatal.

Heroin is among the most dangerous illicit drugs in the United States. Yet heroin is made even more deadly when faced with or used concurrently with another drug such as fentanyl, cocaine methamphetamine or alcohol. Heroin may also contain additives like starch, flour, sugar or powdered milk, which can clog blood vessels and cause permanent damage to the lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, and brain.

How Is Heroin Abused?

Heroin can be injected, snorted or smoked. Some people mix heroin with crack cocaine, which is known as speedballing. Some people start using heroin by snorting the drug into their nose and may graduate to injecting it into their veins.

Any way a person uses heroin is considered abuse. Heroin is categorized, by the Drug Enforcement Administration, as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that it serves no medical purpose and has a very high potential for abuse. There is no safe way to use heroin.

Signs And Symptoms Of Heroin Abuse

The signs of heroin abuse vary based on how much a person uses and how long they’ve been using it. A person who abuses heroin may exhibit strange behaviors, spend a lot of time alone, have unexplainable financial issues and become defensive when asked about their drug use. Signs of heroin abuse may include the presence of drug paraphernalia such as hypodermic needles, and spoons, aluminum foil or bottle caps, which are used to cook the drug.

The symptoms of heroin abuse may also depend on how much a person uses. When an individual abuses heroin, they experience an almost immediate euphoria, which is commonly followed by drowsiness, slowed breathing and slowed reaction time. Heroin affects each person differently but understanding the symptoms of heroin abuse can help determine if a loved one needs treatment.

The short-term effects of heroin may include:

  • flushed skin
  • nausea
  • watery eyes
  • small pupils
  • runny nose
  • the warm and calming feeling
  • heavy arms and legs
  • itchiness
  • drowsiness
  • dry mouth
  • slowed breathing
  • foggy mental state
  • slowed heart rate
  • nodding in and out of wakefulness
  • overdose

Overtime heroin may result in severe and sometimes irreversible health problems. A person suffering from heroin addiction may have an uncontrollable urge to use the drug, despite the health issues it causes them. Long-term heroin use is likely to result in skin infections, abscesses, and needle marks.

Long-term effects of heroin may include:

  • psychological and physical addiction
  • needle marks and bruising around the injection sites (track marks)
  • collapsed veins from injecting
  • damaged nasal tissue from snorting
  • infection of the heart lining
  • abscesses
  • pneumonia
  • constipation and stomach cramps
  • sexual dysfunction for men
  • irregular menstrual cycle for women
  • withdrawal symptoms
  • overdose

Heroin abuse is risky and has a very high chance of leading to addiction, overdose, and other health problems. Injecting heroin, also known as shooting up, may increase the risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis from sharing needles.

What Are The Signs Of A Heroin Overdose?

A heroin overdose happens when a person uses more of the drug than their body is able to metabolize. Heroin overdose can occur from an individual’s first use of the drug or after they’ve been using it for years. When a person overdoses on heroin, their breathing and heart rate slows down dramatically.

Because heroin causes breathing rates to slow down, the amount of oxygen the brain receives is decreased significantly (hypoxia). Hypoxia can have a detrimental effect on how a person’s brain functions and may lead to permanent brain damage.

There are many reasons that people overdose on heroin, which include increased tolerance, drug relapse, concurrent use of prescription opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol or other drugs.

When a person develops a tolerance to heroin, they need more of the drug to achieve the same effect as before. The number of heroin overdoses in the United States has skyrocketed over the last decade.

What Are The Symptoms Of Heroin Withdrawal?

When an individual abuses heroin, the drug acts on their brain’s reward pathway and natural opioid receptors. Opioids like heroin cause dopamine and other neurotransmitters to be released from neurons in the brain, which gives a person a strong sense of wellbeing, relaxation and dulls their pain.

Long-term heroin abuse may cause the brain to stop naturally producing dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. In other words, repeated use of heroin causes the brain to become dependent on the chemical to function properly.

When a person becomes dependent on heroin then abruptly stops using the drug, they may experience severe withdrawal symptoms as a result. Heroin withdrawal symptoms may appear as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken.

The withdrawal symptoms of heroin include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • exhaustion
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • cold flashes
  • severe muscle and bone pain
  • uncontrollable leg movements
  • very strong cravings for heroin

Heroin Abuse In Ohio

Heroin abuse, addiction, and overdose has been on a constant rise in Ohio. From 2000 to 2015, Ohio’s unintentional drug poisoning death rate increased 642 percent which has been driven largely by opioid-related overdoses. Without heroin abuse awareness and the availability of addiction treatment, the rate of heroin overdose may continue to increase in Ohio.

Medically-Supervised Heroin Detoxification

Medically-Supervised detoxification (medical detox) is the safest and most effective way to overcome the physical addiction to heroin. At a medical detox facility, individual suffering from heroin addiction is provided with 24-hour assistance to overcome the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

Medically-Supervised detoxification is often the first step to recovering from heroin addiction. Detoxification gives a person a chance to start fresh, and get the drug out of their system but is merely the first step to addiction treatment.

Treatment Options For Heroin Addiction

After a successful medical detox, an individual needs to be treated for their mental addiction and psychological issues that led to heroin use in the first place. An individualized treatment plan uses behavioral treatment to tackle heroin addiction as it applies to each person and their personal history with the drug. Addiction treatment at Vertava Health Ohio uses a personalized approach to treat a person for psychological, behavioral and any possible co-occurring disorders involved with heroin abuse.

Reach out to Vertava Health Ohio to learn about an addiction treatment that meets your personal needs.