Heroin Addiction Causes and Effects

Sunrise Recovery Ranch provides heroin addiction treatment rooted in a science-based, research-supported clinical model to ensure a healthier, more satisfying life, without addiction.

Understanding Heroin

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

Heroin is a powerful, dangerous, and highly addictive opioid. Also referred to by the slang terms H, smack, horse, and tar, heroin is created by synthesizing morphine, which is a natural component of the opium poppy plant. Heroin may appear as a white, off-white, or brownish powder; it may also take the form of a sticky black solid substance. The drug is most commonly ingested by being snorted, smoked, or injected.

When heroin enters the body, it is converted back into morphine. In this form, it interacts with receptors in the brain that are associated with pleasure and the perception of pain. Heroin use triggers a feeling of intense euphoria, followed by an extended drowsy state. The receptors that heroin interacts with are located in the brain stem, which also controls automatic processes such as breathing and blood pressure. Thus, heroin overdose may cause an individual to stop breathing.

In addition to the potential for long-term damage, or even death, as the result of an overdose, individuals who abuse heroin are also at risk for becoming addicted to this drug. Heroin use disorder can be a profoundly distressing and potentially debilitating condition that can cause significant damage to a person’s physical, psychological, and social wellbeing.

Heroin use disorder can be an excruciating experience, but with effective professional treatment it can be overcome. Various forms of therapy and medication management have proven to be successful in helping people end their dependence upon heroin and resume their pursuit of healthier drug-free futures.


Heroin addiction statistics

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin abuse in the U.S. increased by more than 60% between 2002 and 2013. The CDC also reported that heroin overdose deaths increased by more than 400% over the same time period. In 2013, more than 8,200 deaths were attributed to heroin overdose. Surveys conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicate that about 1.8% of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have abused heroin at least once in their lives, with about 0.7% having done so in the previous 12 months. Among adults ages 26 and above, the lifetime use rate of heroin is about 2%, with past-year use at 0.2%.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

The decision to abuse heroin and the likelihood that that abuse will develop into heroin use disorder may be influenced by a variety of factors, including the following:

Genetic: Multiple studies, including those involving twins and adopted children, suggest that genetics can significantly increase the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction. Also, a genetic predisposition to impulsivity has also been identified as a risk factor for disorders such as heroin use disorder.

Environmental: Access to heroin, associating with individuals who abuse heroin or other drugs, and exposure to high levels of stress are all environmental factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing heroin use disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Being in late teens or early 20s
  • Family history of substance use disorder
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Family or personal history of mental illness
  • Access to heroin

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Heroin abuse may be indicated by several signs and symptoms, including the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Possession of injection paraphernalia, including syringes and hypodermic needles
  • Scabs, sores, and other evidence of multiple injections
  • Lying or other deceptiveness regarding one’s whereabouts and/or activities
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Decreased participation in significant activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Scabs, sores, and other evidence of multiple injections
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss 
  • Lethargy
  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Heaviness in arms and legs
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Flushed skin
  • Constricted pupils
  • Itchiness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Impaired judgment

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Sensation of euphoria
  • Severe mood swings
  • Anxiety


Effects of heroin addiction

Chronic heroin abuse can expose an individual to myriad short- and long-term effects, including the following:

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Family discord
  • Strained or ruined relationships
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Unemployment
  • Financial devastation
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

The following are among the more common co-occurring disorders experienced by individuals who have developed heroin use disorder:

  • Other substance use disorders
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal & overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: Significantly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as the ones listed below can begin to occur within hours of cessation. These symptoms can make it extremely difficult for individuals to overcome heroin use disorder without professional support:

  • Powerful cravings for heroin
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Anxiety
  • Dysphoria
  • Anhedonia

Effects of heroin overdose: Every time a person ingests heroin, he or she risks overdosing. A person who exhibits the following symptoms after ingesting heroin may have overdosed, and is in need of immediate medical attention:

  • Shallow or irregular breathing
  • Depressed heart rate
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bluish coloration around mouth or fingertips
  • Muscle spasms
  • Unconsciousness

Thanks to Sunrise Recovery Ranch, my daughter was able to get the lasting recovery she deserved from her addiction and her co-occurring mental health disorder. I am super grateful!

– Michelle A.
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  • American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
  • California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)