Heroin Symptoms & Effects

Heroin is a powerful and illegal drug belonging to a family of drugs called opioids, which are derived from the opium poppy plant. Typically injected, snorted, or smoked, heroin produces strong feelings of euphoria and alternating drowsy and wakeful states known as being “on the nod.” Because of heroin’s powerful euphoric effects, the ease of developing a dependence, and its powerful withdrawal symptoms, people are typically unable to stop using heroin without professional help.

Thankfully, help is available. With the assistance of a comprehensive care program, it is possible for individuals who abuse heroin to free themselves from the drug’s influence and make changes to help them live healthy and drug-free lives.

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Statistics

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately 2% of people will use heroin at some point in their lives. Additionally, data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that, when adjusted for population increase, the rate of drug-poisoning deaths from heroin nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. Data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH) also found that 669,000 Americans had used heroin in the past year and 335,000 individuals had used this dangerous substance in the past month.

Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Abuse

An individual’s struggle with heroin abuse generally arises out a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, some of which can include:

Genetic: Mental health experts have found that genetics play an important role in determining a person’s risk for developing a heroin addiction. Specifically, people whose family members use heroin are more vulnerable to developing a heroin addiction at a rate nearly 80% higher than the general population, according to one study.

Environmental: While a person can inherit a genetic vulnerability to heroin addiction from family, one’s family can also be an environmental influence. People who grew up in homes with family members who used heroin, and where heroin was readily available, are more likely to use heroin than are people who grew up in homes where there was no drug use. Other environmental factors can also increase the likelihood that a person will use heroin, such as a history of abuse, exposure to trauma, living in poverty, and having friends who use the drug.

Risk Factors:

  • Having poor coping skills
  • Being male
  • Experiencing a traumatic event, such as violence or abuse
  • Having a family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Living in poverty
  • Having a personal history of mental illness or substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

The signs and symptoms of heroin abuse can differ based on an individual’s personality and the length and severity of the abuse itself. However, the following are some common signs and symptoms of heroin abuse:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Secretiveness or deception about one’s whereabouts
  • Lying or stealing
  • Always wearing long-sleeved shirts or pants to prevent others from noticing injection marks
  • Unexplained financial problems
  • Restlessness
  • Declining performance at work
  • Changes in one’s social circle

Physical symptoms:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Scabs or wounds at injection sites
  • Weight loss
  • Poor attention to hygiene
  • Extreme drowsiness

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor attention
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor judgment or problem-solving
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Difficulty thinking or expressing oneself clearly

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Loss of interest in activities one used to enjoy
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Heroin Abuse

If left untreated, heroin abuse can lead to disastrous effects in nearly every area of a person’s life. Some of these effects may include:

  • Poor performance at work, possibly leading to job loss
  • Financial strife
  • Organ damage
  • Polysubstance use
  • Contracting an infection, such as HIV, from sharing needles
  • Relational stress
  • Divorce
  • Loss of child custody
  • Onset or worsening of symptoms of a mental health condition(s)
  • Legal problems or incarceration
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Tragically, it is not uncommon for people who struggle with heroin abuse to also meet criteria for other mental health diagnoses, some of which may include:

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

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: After a period of using heroin, a person’s body becomes accustomed to the presence of the drug. If that person then suddenly stops using the drug, his or her body must readjust to functioning without it. This readjustment process is known as withdrawal. The intensity of the withdrawal process is one reason why many people have such difficulty quitting heroin without help. Withdrawal from heroin can include the following symptoms:

  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cramping and muscle pain
  • Tremors, spasms, or shaking
  • Diarrhea
  • Dangerous fluctuations in body temperature
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Intense cravings for heroin

Effects of heroin overdose: Should a person ingest more heroin than his or her body can metabolize, he or she will experience an overdose, an ever-present risk for people who use the drug. Someone who exhibits the following symptoms of an overdose should receive medical attention immediately:

  • Extremely low blood pressure
  • Confusion, disorientation, or delirium
  • Trouble breathing
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakened heartbeat
  • Coma
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