The Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Heroin has a reputation for causing addiction to develop quickly. While many people are aware of the addiction potential of heroin, they may not understand all of the effects and risks of using heroin. This page will cover the immediate and long-term dangers of heroin use.

Immediate Effects of Heroin

Heroin is a powerful substance, derived from the opium poppy, which creates a strong sense of euphoria in the user. This sensation is experienced as an overwhelming rush of pleasure and well-being, including a diminished ability to feel pain. These feelings may be extremely attractive to some people, and rumors about their greatness are usually what gets people to try the drug for the first time.1,2

Heroin works by quickly binding with special cells in the brain referred to as opioid receptors, which then causes the rush of euphoria.3

Other possible immediate effects of heroin include:2,4

  • Flushing and warmth of the skin.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Heaviness in the arms and legs.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Severe itching.

Depending on the dose, some short-term effects of heroin can be extreme enough to be life-threatening. These potential health risks include:2,4 

  • Mental cloudiness.
  • Slowed heart rate.
  • Slowed breathing, which can lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Despite the drug’s adverse effects, its associated sensation of pleasure is often strong enough to make an individual want to use heroin again, just to repeat the feeling. If the person responds to that desire and uses heroin repeatedly, a number of long-term effects can develop, including:4,7

  • Collapsed or clogged veins.
  • Skin abscesses (i.e., swollen tissue with pus).
  • Heart or circulatory infections.
  • Liver or kidney disease.
  • Constipation.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Addiction.

Additionally, repeated heroin use may lead to lasting changes in the brain and how it functions, negatively affecting its ability to make decisions, regulate behavior, and respond to stressful situations. Chronic heroin use can also cause intense levels of tolerance and physical dependence, which can ultimately drive the development of a heroin addiction.7

Tolerance is when the effects of the same dose of a substance like heroin diminish over time. This may cause a person to use more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect, initiating a dangerous cycle of compulsive use and increasing the risk of overdose.8

Physical dependence occurs when the body becomes so used to the presence of a substance like heroin that it begins to need the drug to think and function normally. Once dependence develops, a person will experience symptoms of heroin withdrawal if they attempt to suddenly stop or cutback their use.7,8 

Does Stopping Heroin Use Help?

Some people assume that just stopping use of heroin can return the brain and body to normal. Research has indicated there are potential treatments that can aid in this recovery, helping to counter the damaging effects of using the drug for a long time. While this may be true for some, the ability to recover fully from the effects of heroin use will likely depend on a number of factors, such as:9

  • How long the drug has been used.
  • How high the dosage has been during active use.
  • The person’s individual state of health.
  • How much damage has been caused by the degree of use.

For example, a person who has been using high doses of heroin and experienced bouts of hypoxia may have experienced brain damage that can last for the rest of their life. In addition, regular heroin use can cause long-term or even permanent damage to the opioid system in the brain, leading to depression and lingering cravings for the drug, which always present a risk of relapse.9

Relapsing after a period of abstinence is also a risk. Many people, after going through medical detox, will try to return to their same dosage before they stopped using the drug. However, when tolerance has worn off, this dosage can be too much for the body to handle, leading to a potentially fatal overdose.9

Signs of Heroin Overdose

Taking too much heroin can lead to an overdose. Signs of a possible heroin or other opioid overdose include:5,6,10

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint pupils.”
  • Inability to stay awake or loss of consciousness.
  • Slow, shallow breathing.
  • Limp body.
  • Blue or purple lips or fingernails.
  • Pale or cold skin.
  • Choking or gurgling sounds.
  • Vomiting.

Heroin Addiction Treatment in California

Stopping drug use as soon as possible provides the greatest opportunity to avoid these challenges and risks of long-term heroin use and addiction. But trying to stop alone, without support, is not recommended due to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings that may occur.

This can be eased by getting the help of an experienced, research-based orange county drug detox facility. At Laguna Treatment Center, we offer different levels of addiction rehab that can help a person through the process of quitting heroin, with personalized treatment plans designed to meet the individual needs of each patient.

To learn more about our programs, call us at . Our admissions navigators are available around the clock to discuss your treatment options, answer questions about how to pay for rehab, and help you start treatment today.

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