Signs & Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

A highly addictive and illegal drug, heroin inhibits a person’s ability to experience pain and causes feelings of euphoria.

Understanding Heroin

Learn More About Heroin Abuse

Made from the poppy plant and synthesized from morphine, heroin can be identified as a black, sticky substance or as a white to dark brown powder. This drug causes an immediate high because of the ability to quickly cross the blood-brain barrier and a person can remain under the influence of heroin for several hours. While the high brought on by heroin causes feelings of elation, the withdrawal can be brutal. Tolerance for greater amounts of heroin is likely to develop, thus increasing a person’s likelihood for overdose.

In addition to the risk of overdose, there are a number of other health concerns associated with heroin use. Firstly, heroin is often “cut” with other substances that, when ingested, can result in permanent damage to the body. Secondly, because heroin is often smoked by users, there is an increased risk for damage to lung and kidney function. Lastly, and due to the fact that heroin is frequently injected through the use of needles, heroin users are at an increased risk of exposure to infectious diseases and viruses, such as HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C.

Fortunately, help is available to treat this potentially life-ending addiction. With proper care, therapeutic interventions, and medical supervision, heroin addiction can be overcome and a life free from the burden of addiction is possible.


Statistics of Heroin Abuse

The number of people who are seeking treatment for heroin addiction is on the rise. One study has shown that nearly 20% of people currently in treatment for addiction report heroin as their primary drug of choice. Furthermore, the number of heroin-related deaths reported in the early 2010s has increased by 45% in comparison to the statistics reported in the early 2000s.

Causes and Risks

Causes and Risk Factors of Heroin Abuse

Being that researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact cause for heroin abuse, there are several considerations that one must take in to account when trying to conclude the origins of an individual’s heroin abuse. Ponder the following explanations:

Genetic: Experts have concluded that addiction does, in fact, possess a genetic component. Individuals with a first-degree relative who have struggled with substances, like heroin, have a greater chance of using and abusing drugs. Moreover, addiction specialists have concluded that certain personality types, which are known to be heritable, are more susceptible to the development of certain addictions.

Physical: Prolonged heroin use is believed to cause a number of chemical and structural changes in the brain. Infringing on the brain’s ability to transmit messages effectively, regular heroin users may not be able to experience pain because of blocked receptors in the brain that that would otherwise alert the user that he or she has experienced an injury. Additionally, heroin is known to effect a person’s cognitive functioning by impairing an individual’s ability to make good choices as a result of these chemical changes.

Environmental: Exposure to a number of environmental conditions can sometimes lead a person to use or abuse drugs, like heroin. Growing up in a home in which substance use is a regular occurrence, experiencing trauma or chronic stress, and/or being the victim of a crime, abuse, or neglect are believed to influence whether or not a person will use and eventually abuse drugs.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Lack of support system
  • Family history of substance use
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Low self-esteem
  • High stress levels
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Access to heroin

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Depending on how long a person has been abusing the drug, the amount used, and whether or not the individual is using other substances in addition to heroin, the signs and symptoms of heroin abuse can very person-to-person. Below are some common signs and symptoms associated with heroin abuse:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Increased need for sleep
  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to maintain responsibilities
  • Skin picking
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Bursts of hyperactivity
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even when the weather is warm

Physical symptoms:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Injection sites / track marks
  • Scabs or bruising of the skin

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Decrease in an ability to make good decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Paranoia
  • Disorientation

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Unpredictable mood
  • Euphoria
  • Decline in ability to enjoy things
  • Lack of self-control
  • Anxious feelings


Effects of Heroin Abuse

Long-term heroin use can render a number of negative effects on an individual’s life. Effects such as:

  • Loss of employment
  • Poor academic performance
  • Homelessness
  • Poverty
  • Family discord
  • Divorce
  • Increased interaction with the legal system
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse / neglect
  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • Abscesses at injection sites
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Damage to lung function
  • Vital organ damage
  • Overdose
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin Addiction & Co-Occurring Disorders

The prevalence of co-occurring mental disorders in those that use and abuse drugs is known to be quite high. Sometimes people abuse substances to dull the unpleasant symptoms of mental health conditions, while certain mental illnesses can occur as a result of drug use. Some common mental disorders that can exist alongside heroin use and abuse are:

  • Other substance abuse or addiction
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Withdrawal from heroin: When a person suddenly stops using heroin, a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms are known to occur. And because the nature of heroin withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, it is often necessary to seek out medical attention in order to reduce the risk of more grave outcomes. Potentially occurring within a few hours of discontinued use, the following symptoms of withdrawal can include:

  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Cold flashes
  • Uncontrolled muscle movement
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle or bone pain

Overdose from heroin: If a person consumes more heroin than his or her body is able to handle or if the purity level of the heroin is greater than the addict is accustomed to, there is an increased risk for overdose. With death being the most severe of possibilities, there are a number of other telltale signs and potential outcomes that infer an individual is overdosing or has overdosed on heroin. The list below includes some of the indicators and likely effects of heroin overdose:

  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Discolored tongue
  • Contracted pupils
  • Labored breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Delirium
  • Disorientation
  • Hypotension
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death

I struggled with heroin and I had hit rock bottom before Sonora. Thank you to everyone at Sonora for helping me get my life back on track.

– Ethan J.