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effects of heroin
December 5, 2018

The Effects of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is an illicit, chemically altered derivative of morphine that is highly addictive and extremely potent. Long-considered a kingpin of underground drug culture, heroin is abused on an astronomical scale and associated with an epidemic of overdose, death, and crime. Heroin’s reputation for being devastating to the human body and brain have not diminished its popularity in any way—it continues to be pedaled on the street and sold through other illicit channels domestically and abroad. Cartels continue to smuggle the drug across borders, capitalizing on virtually guaranteed profits and finding new and improved ways of eluding authorities. 

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2016, approximately 950,000 Americans reported using heroin within the past year. Within that population, approximately 170,000 were first-time heroin users—the majority being emotionally, physically and psychologically fragile young adults ages 18-25. This statistic represents a meteoric rise in use when compared to the approximately 90,000 first time users in 2006, and puts into proper perspective the unprecedented scale of heroin’s availability and socio-economic destruction.


The human brain is composed of a vast network of opioid receptors. These receptors naturally create (opioid) chemicals in order to help manage pain; however, they are often short-lasting and insufficient to relieve chronic or debilitating pain. The legendary heroin high—known for its immediate euphoria—is the result of the drug artificially flooding the brain with pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin.  Regardless of whether the drug is taken intravenously, or in powder or tar form, its effects are instantaneously apparent and the pleasurable trance it creates overwhelming.

Relative to other opiates, heroin penetrates the blood-brain barrier with lighting speed and makes users more desperately dependent on its euphoric effects. Unfortunately, artificially manipulating brain chemistry is associated with a trove of negative long-term effects, including gradually depleting the same chemicals it initially elevates. Once a heroin user becomes dependent on the intoxicating effects of the drug in the early stages of addiction, they require greater quantities and more frequent dosage in order to achieve the same fleeting effects. This is highly problematic and creates a vicious cycle fueled by appetite and compulsion that can never be satisfied no matter how hard they try.

Heroin addiction is associated with long-term and, in many cases, irreversible brain damage and cognitive impairments. Although the brain is inherently malleable and capable of self-regeneration to a certain extent, a process called neuroplasticity, heroin damages the structural and cellular capacity that allows this to happen. For example, one of the very first brain structures damaged by chronic heroin abuse is the medial temporal lobe. This delicate brain region is responsible for auditory perception as well as the conscious memory of facts and events. Damage to the medial temporal lobe is associated with accelerated aging and diminished cognitive capacity and frequently occurs as a result of the cheap chemical poisons and impure substances mixed with heroin by unscrupulous dealers.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) represents another region of the brain that sustains major damage as a result of heroin addiction. Considered by scientists to be a “human supercomputer,” the prefrontal cortex facilitates a number of vital cognitive functions including logical thinking, planning, impulse control, and judgment. These capacities, known as executive functions, are essential for rational behavior. Without them, autonomous functioning as an adult becomes difficult and healthy decision-making nearly impossible. In fact, an abundance of empirical evidence reveals how damaged executive functioning leads to major cognitive deficits, dangerous impulsivity, and a litany of negative social, professional and legal consequences.

It is extremely common for heroin users to be arrested for major lapses in judgment associated with impaired cognition. DUIs, reckless driving, assault, and other violent altercations and related charges are all exponentially more likely to occur as a result of heroin addiction. Prisons and jails all across America (and the world) are filled with otherwise wonderful, sensitive human beings who are suffering the permanent consequences of heroin addiction in ways they never imagined.  Even when heroin addiction doesn’t lead to devastating legal consequences, it is associated with the development of numerous neurological and personality disorders that prove equally devastating. These disorders—which include anti-social personality disorder—are exceptionally difficult to manage and transform ordinary lives into an ongoing nightmare.                  


Heroin’s assault on the body is as damaging as the previously described mental and psychological effects. Even when used on a short-term, recreational basis, heroin is potent enough to cause the following:

  • Itchy or irritated skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Extreme sensitivity to light
  • Constricted pupils
  • Lower body temperature
  • Dry mouth
  • Slowed respiration
  • Decreased heart rate

In short, there is no such thing as safe heroin use—under any circumstances. The already unpredictable physical effects of the drug are exacerbated by the toxic ingredients and improper mixture with other illicit substances that frequently find their way into street-purchased varieties. These impure ingredients and mixtures interact explosively with body chemistry, and may produce potentially fatal complications. Common side-effects associated with long-term heroin use include:

  • Bleeding, excoriated skin (the result of scratching)
  • Impaired sexual function
  • Severe constipation
  • Diminished immune function
  • Weakness, lethargy, and sedation
  • Insomnia and other difficulty sleeping
  • Damaged oral health—periodontitis and bone loss
  • Rotting teeth, foul breath and painful, bleeding abscesses  
  • Burn marks or scars on the fingers
  • Total loss of appetite
  • Extreme disorientation, psychosis, and suicidal ideation
  • Stiff, achy limbs and flu-like symptoms

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin can cause HIV, hepatitis B and C, and additional blood-borne diseases as a result of sharing injection paraphernalia. In fact, in recent years, over 50 percent of hepatitis C cases and 20 percent of hepatitis B cases were the direct results of the injection.  Many of these diseases are notoriously difficult to treat and unintentionally transmitted to sexual partners—making them a double threat. Contaminated street varieties of the drug may also cause serious bacterial infections that target the heart valve, lining and surrounding blood vessels. If not treated promptly, this can lead to permanent scarring, collapsed veins and cardiovascular disease. In some cases, a heart attack and/or coma occur from resulting complications.

Heroin’s devastating impact on the skin is widely feared and for good reason. Heroin addiction may result in:

  • Rapid weight loss—the dangerous loss of fat triggered by hard-core heroin use can result in a hollow, sickly complexion and prematurely aged facial features.
  • Discoloration and dark circles—heroin use frequently causes dark under-the-eye circles and pallid, cracked and wrinkled skin. In some cases, a sickly, blueish or jaundiced color may also accompany the aforementioned changes.

Additional physiological damage triggered by heroin addiction can include fetal damage and potentially fatal pregnancy complications. Like other illicit hard-core drugs, prenatal exposure to heroin is devastating. Empirical evidence implicates prenatal heroin damage in impairments and diseases that frequently carry over into adulthood and, in some cases, last permanently. Heroin abuse during pregnancy dramatically increases the likelihood of the baby being born heroin-dependent and without the physiological and psychological tools necessary to lead a healthy, functional life. This disturbing reality is perhaps the most important argument against heroin use—the understanding that it is bad enough to damage one’s own life without destroying a totally innocent life in the process.


Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that knows no boundaries. Its addictive powers should never be underestimated and its devastating effects never minimized.  If you or a loved one are struggling with heroin addiction—call a substance abuse professional today and begin the process of seeking the help you need. Delaying treatment is considered extremely dangerous and leads to unfavorable, and sometimes deadly, outcomes. The same applies to self-guided treatment or at-home detox not managed by a qualified medical professional.

And remember, heroin overdose is considered a medical emergency. In the event of overdose, immediately call an ambulance or seek treatment at the nearest hospital emergency room (ER).

For more about heroin addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:


The Pharmaceutical Journal. Heroin abuse: breaking the cycle. June, 2015.

Current Directions in Psychological Science. The Heroin Overdose Mystery. Dec, 2016.

Harm Reduction Journal. Mitigating the heroin crisis in Baltimore, MD, USA: a cost-benefit analysis of a hypothetical supervised injection facility. May, 2017.

The Journal of Pain. Heroin use among patients prescribed opiate therapy. March, 2018.