The Effects of Heroin on the Body
Heroin is classified as an illicit, Schedule 1 narcotic by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of its incredibly dangerous, unpredictable nature. Despite its reputation for being highly damaging to the human brain and destructive to the body, the drug continues to be abused on an unprecedented scale. Among young adults ages 18-25, by far the most physiologically and psychologically vulnerable population, heroin use has dramatically increased and overdose-related deaths continue to surge. The astronomically profitable and criminally lethal drug remains readily available, with efforts by government authorities and law enforcement agencies to crack down on manufacturing and distribution proving largely unsuccessful.
HEROIN AND THE BRAIN
Heroin is known to produce an immediate “high” with unmatched euphoria. Depending upon whether the drug is taken intravenously or in powder (or tar) form, its effects take hold instantaneously. After penetrating the blood-brain barrier and being metabolized into morphine, heroin binds to opiate receptors in the brain. Once bound, it begins to work its black magic, artificially elevating dopamine levels and unleashing a pleasurable rush that dupes users into forgetting about long-term consequences.
Like other opiates, heroin creates dependency and addiction by manipulating brain chemistry and rewiring what is known as the “pleasure and reward” system. This dopamine-driven faculty makes users reliant on unnaturally euphoric, “feel good” states that increasingly require higher doses at greater frequencies to sustain. In reality, this “high” is unsustainable— a bottomless pit that can never be filled regardless of what desperate, extreme measures a user takes.
Chronic heroin abuse causes irreversible brain damage and troubling cognitive impairments. The medial temporal lobe, for example, is one of the first brain structures to undergo accelerated aging as a result of heroin use. In extreme cases, the molecular structure and “hardware” of a heroin-damaged brain literally resemble that of a senior citizen.
Brain health depends upon a delicate balance of gray and white matter, the former of which is naturally lost through the process of aging. With heroin use, however, this loss is premature and, in some cases, irreversible. The intricate network of neural synapses, receptors and pathways that form a high-functioning adult brain cannot withstand the destruction inflicted by chronic use.
Another region of the brain that heroin abuse irreversibly damages is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The prefrontal cortex is analogous to a human supercomputer and is responsible for planning, logical thinking, impulse control and judgment. Known as “executive functioning,” this combination of abilities is critical to mature, autonomous functioning as an adult.
Once a user has sustained major damage to the prefrontal cortex, cognitive deficits and increased impulsivity are inevitable, and lasting social, professional and legal consequences soon follow. Research has also implicated prefrontal cortex damage in the development of debilitating and notoriously difficult-to-treat neurological and personality disorders, including anti-social personality disorder (APD).
ADDITIONAL PHYSIOLOGICAL DAMAGE
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the sharing of heroin needles can cause HIV, hepatitis B and C, and a variety of other blood-based diseases, some of which may be unintentionally transmitted to sexual partners. In 2010, the agency reported that approximately 53 percent of hepatitis C cases, and approximately 20 percent of hepatitis B cases, were the result of injection drug use. The contaminated varieties of heroin sold on the street are also known to cause serious bacterial infections in the heart lining, valves and surrounding blood vessels— a process that may result in scarring, collapsed veins and severe cardiovascular distress.
Perhaps more than any other adverse side effect, heroin is known for wreaking havoc on the bones, skin and teeth. Excessive heroin users suffer from a greater occurrence of prematurely decayed and missing teeth, periodontal diseases and poor oral hygiene. Heroin reduces saliva production, which results in decreased bone density and mass and dangerously numbed oral sensation. Heroin can turn a perfectly beautiful, healthy smile into a corroded, decaying mess, and frequently causes missing or rotted teeth, foul breath, and painful, bleeding abscesses.
Heroin’s effect on the skin is equally devastating. The rapid weight loss it triggers causes a loss of fat in the face and produces a hollow, prematurely aged or shriveled appearance. Additionally, dark circles may develop under the eyes accompanied by pallid, cracked or wrinkled skin. Certain users may experience a sickly bluish or jaundiced skin tone and a sagging, diseased quality to their overall complexion. Such horrifying effects are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of overall skin health and vitality.
Most disturbingly, heroin can also cause fetal damage and potentially fatal pregnancy complications. Even in cases of mild recreational use at moderate doses, the damage associated with prenatal exposure may linger into adulthood and cause a series of irreversible impairments. A pregnant woman who abuses heroin exponentially increases the likelihood of the baby being born heroin-dependent and sets the stage for a dysfunctional life.
Beyond this malignant trove of damaging effects, heroin may also cause the following:
- Burn marks on the fingers
- Loss of appetite
- Severe constipation
- Heart attack
- Stiff, achy limbs
- Flu-like symptoms
- Constricted pupils
- Chronic cough
- Dry mouth
- Excessive fatigue
If you or someone you love is struggling with a heroin problem, seek treatment immediately. The effects of heroin are potent and can lead to premature death— but detox and treatment can spare you from the worst of heroin’s effects.
For more about heroin addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:
- Heroin Detox Guide
- Motivating Someone to Seek Help for a Drug or Alcohol Problem
- The Science of Drug Addiction
- Prenatal Effects of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
American Journal of Preventative Medicine (AJPM). Geographic Variation in Opioid and Heroin Involved Drug Poisoning Mortality Rates. Dec, 2017.
Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. The impact of heroin on frontal executive functions. Oct, 2002.
Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. Addiction and Cognition. Dec, 2010.
North Carolina Medical Journal (NCMJ). How Did We Get Here? Heroin and Fentanyl Trafficking Trends. May, 2018.