Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Heroin Addiction

Understanding the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction can help you or a loved one make a decision about treatment. Every experience with heroin addiction is different, and if you or a loved one are struggling, we are here to help.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin addiction and substance abuse

Heroin is a highly addictive and destructive substance. Derived from the prescription pain medication, morphine, heroin is an illicit drug that wreaks havoc on the lives of those who use it. By depressing the central nervous, heroin produces the user with a high as the result of the brain’s sudden inability to feel pain and increasing one’s feelings of euphoria. Heroin users have described the rush they receive from using the drug as providing them with feeling a profound sense of satisfaction, as well as a great relief of tension. While the high that one receives from using heroin is pleasurable, the consequences that can result from using this dangerous substance can be deadly.


Heroin addiction statistics

An estimated 9.2 million people throughout the world use heroin. In the United States alone, opiate use, predominantly heroin, makes up 18% of the population who receive treatment for drug and/or alcohol addiction.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

While there is not any one specific cause identified as leading to the onset of a heroin addiction, professionals in the field believe that a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors all contribute to a person’s susceptibility to developing an addiction. These factors are described in the following:

Genetic: Genetics are believed to have a part in determining whether or not someone is at a high risk of developing a drug addiction. Research has shown that individuals who have family members who struggle with addiction are more likely to experience addictive tendencies themselves. Additionally, certain personality traits can affect whether or not a person is vulnerable to developing a drug problem and many personality traits are known to be hereditary.

Physical: When people use heroin, their brains’ communication system becomes disturbed, causing dysfunction in the way that nerve cells send, receive, and process information. As a result of these changes, people can lose the self-control they need to put an end to their drug use.

Environmental: Individuals who grow up in an environment where drug use is a common occurrence are more vulnerable to developing a drug addiction, as the participation in the behavior is seen as acceptable in that personal environment. Additionally, some people who have experienced significant traumas have been known to use substances as a means of numbing themselves from the distress they experience as a result of their trauma. The more effective that a substance is at numbing those negative emotions, the more likely those people are to continuing using, subsequently leading to the development of an addiction.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male (men are twice as likely to struggle with heroin addiction than women are)
  • Family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Personal history of abusing other substances
  • Peer pressure
  • Loneliness
  • High levels of stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • History of experiencing trauma
  • Exposure to crime
  • Exposure to violence
  • Level of ease in getting substances

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

The signs and symptoms that are displayed by people using heroin will vary depending on the extent to which a person uses, the length of time that the person has been using, and the amount consumed during each use. Examples of various symptoms that may indicate an individual is abusing heroin can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Picking at skin
  • Sudden, sporadic bursts of hyperactivity
  • Slurred speech
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Participating in criminal activity
  • Sudden change in friends
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, regardless of the weather, in order to hide track marks / injection sites
  • Disregard for personal appearance

Physical symptoms:

  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Dilated pupils
  • Persistent itching
  • Weight loss
  • Scabs or bruises on the skin
  • Impaired vision
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Odd sleeping patterns

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Alternating between drowsy and wakeful states of consciousness
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lacking the ability to control impulses

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Oscillating moods
  • Loss of interest in things one was once interested in
  • Depressive episodes
  • Increased levels of anxiety
  • Inexplicable feelings of hostility


Effects of heroin addiction

The effects that an addiction to heroin can have on the lives of those using it can be devastating, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening. The long-term effects of heroin abuse can include:

  • Trouble with the legal system, including incarceration
  • Homelessness
  • Unemployment
  • Scholastic failure
  • Financial ruin
  • Isolation
  • Destroyed relationships
  • Contracting infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis
  • Collapsed veins
  • Clogged blood vessels leading to vital organ damage
  • Irreversible cognitive impairment
  • Spontaneous, unwanted abortion
  • Heart attack / stroke / seizures
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-injury
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

An addiction to heroin can exist alongside a number of different mental illnesses. Many people who suffer from a mental disorder will begin using substances as a way to self-medicate the symptoms they experience. Others may feel a lack of control over their minds, so they turn to using substances because it provides them with a false sense of control. The following are examples of mental disorders that have been known to co-occur with heroin abuse and addiction:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Other substance use disorders

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal & overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal:

Typically beginning between 6-24 hours after last using the drug, and reaching a peak between 48-72 hours, the effects of heroin withdrawal can include:

  • Onset of flu-like symptoms
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Excessive sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Excessive restlessness
  • Severe abdominal cramps

Effects of heroin overdose:

A number of factors can potentially lead to an overdose of heroin. As people develop a tolerance for the drug, they begin to use higher doses in order to achieve a consistent high. In doing so, these people can potentially use more than their bodies are capable of handling, resulting in an overdose. Additionally, depending on the purity level of the drug, or if the mixture used contains other toxic chemicals, the result can be the body rejecting the substance and going into shock. The following are signs that can indicate that an individual has overdosed on heroin:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Lips turning blue
  • Very slurred speech
  • Weakening pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures
  • Stoke
  • Coma

Overdosing on heroin is a medical emergency and, if not immediately treated, can result in death.