Heroin Addiction Causes & Effects

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Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin addiction and abuse

Heroin is a tremendously addictive opioid that can cause a great deal of devastation in the lives of those who abuse it. Often referred to as horse, smack, or tar, heroin is a synthetic form of morphine, which is a substance found within the poppy plant. When an individual consumes heroin, which is typically done through smoking, ingesting, or snorting it, the body converts that heroin back into morphine. When this occurs, the drug triggers receptors in the brain that are linked to alleviating pain and inducing pleasure, as well as involuntary actions including heart rate and respiratory function.

The abuse of a substance like heroin can expose users to a number of short- and long-term damage that can include the development of an addiction and possible overdose. The continual abuse of heroin and the development of heroin use disorder can lead to extensive damage to an individual’s mental, physical, and social wellbeing.

It can be incredibly difficult to defeat heroin use disorder without help from professionals. Numerous treatment options for heroin have been created to help individuals put a stop to their heroin dependence and begin living lives that are productive and healthy.


Heroin addiction statistics

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH), heroin abuse has become more prevalent amongst adults in the United States, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25. Approximately 2% of adults in the U.S. have abused heroin at least one time in their lives, and roughly 150,000 people abuse heroin for the first time each year. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that the number of individuals who met the criteria for heroin use disorder increased over 100% over the last 10 years. In 2002, there were 214,000 cases of heroin use disorder, and by 2012, there were 467,000. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that heroin-related deaths between the years 2001 and 2013 increased by 500%.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

The causes and risk factors for abusing and eventually becoming addicted to heroin can be vast. However, research cites the following as the most common reasons why some people abuse heroin and others do not:

Genetic: Countless studies, including research focused on heroin abuse among adopted children and twins, point out that there is a significant genetic component linked to an individual’s likelihood of struggling with heroin use disorder. Generally speaking, it has been realized that those with a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, who has struggled with heroin addiction or other substance use concerns are more likely to also engage in substance using behaviors.

Environmental: Easy access to heroin and/or fraternizing with those who abuse heroin place a person at risk for abusing this and other substances. Other environmental factors connected to heroin use disorder include exposure to heightened levels of stress and low socioeconomic status.

Risk Factors:

  • Family or personal history of mental illness
  • Being in one’s late teens or early 20s
  • Having easy access to heroin
  • Having poor impulse control
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Prior personal history of substance abuse
  • Having poor stress-management skills

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Below are some of the possible signs and symptoms that indicate an individual has been abusing heroin:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lying or otherwise acting deceptively regarding whereabouts and/or activities
  • Possessing of syringes, needles, or other drug paraphernalia
  • Cessation of or decreased participation in once-enjoyed activities

Physical Symptoms:

  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scabs, sores, and/or abscesses
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Slowed breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Itchiness
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Sensation of heaviness in arms and legs
  • Constricted pupils

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Trouble focusing or thinking clearly
  • Impaired judgment
  • Confusion and disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Severe mood swings


Effects of heroin addiction

Continual, untreated heroin addiction can lead to a number of dangerous outcomes, specifically because this substance can cause significant damage and impact an individual’s decision making skills while under the influence. Below are some of the countless upsetting effects connected to the abuse of heroin:

  • Financial ruin
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Strained or ruined relationships
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Viral infections, including hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Disease of the liver and kidneys
  • Homelessness
  • Pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • Family discord
  • Overdose

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

Those who have developed heroin use disorder are at great risk for suffering from the following co-occurring disorders:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal & overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: When an individual finds herself dependent upon heroin and attempts to stop and/or reduce the amount she is using, she can begin going through a period of withdrawal. Symptoms associated with withdrawal can make it challenging for individuals to defeat their heroin use disorder without the help of professionals. These symptoms can develop within a few hours after the last use of this drug. Below are some of the more common withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin:

  • Anhedonia
  • Dysphoria
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Strong cravings for heroin
  • Flu-like symptoms

Effects of heroin overdose: When an individual abuses heroin, she is at an increased risk for overdose, which can be deadly. Someone who displays the below symptoms after consuming heroin should seek immediate medical attention in order to avoid a grave outcome:

  • Slowed heart rate
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Blue hue around mouth or fingertips
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Shallow or irregular breathing
  • Significant drop in blood pressure

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