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Effect of Heroin on the Body

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

March 5, 2019

Heroin is an illicit opioid drug that is very dangerous for individuals to use or abuse. This drug works by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain that control necessary bodily functions, like breathing. Using heroin interferes with how these processes work and can leave the user with lasting effects on the body.

The Heroin Epidemic

In 2011, the National Institute of Drug Abuse found that 4.2 million Americans had used heroin at least once in their lives, according to the website. This percentage includes youth as young as 12 years old. Even more staggering than this statistic, the website also states that it is estimated that approximately 23 percent of those who use heroin will become dependent on it.

Other statistics reported by the National Institute of Drug Abuse include that worldwide, 9.2 million people use heroin, and the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report showed 153,000 heroin users in the U.S., while other estimates claim the number to be as high as 900,000. Opiates, the majority of which are heroin, account for 18% of those admitted for drug/ alcohol treatment here in the U.S., according to the Drug Free World website.

Heroin Defined

In terms of addiction, heroin is highly addictive, and is, unfortunately, used by millions of people around the world. Heroin belongs to the opioid drug family, and is synthesized from morphine, which occurs naturally in the seed pod of the Asian opium poppy plant. After removing the milky, white substance reaped from the poppy plant, it is refined into morphine, and finally administered into varying forms of heroin, as explained on the Drug Free World website. In drug form, heroin appears as a white or brown powder, or as a black, sticky substance, sometimes called “black tar heroin,” according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

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How Heroin Can Cause An Overdose

The reason, then, that heroin is so dangerous, according to the NIDA is that it can cause a suppression of breathing, which in turn affects the amount of oxygen which reaches the brain. This reduced supply of oxygen is a condition known as hypoxia, and can cause damage to the psychological and neurological systems, both short- and long-term. Such damages may include coma and brain damage which can be permanent.

Why Heroin Can Become Addicting

If the use of heroin can be so dangerous, one may wonder why anyone would ever use such a drug in the first place. According to user reports from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, those who use heroin by injection get an instant “rush,” a euphoric feeling. Users may become addicted to this feeling, and also the feeling of warmth that comes over the skin, a heaviness about the arms and legs, and a trail off into a state of drowsiness and wakefulness. While this may not appeal to some, this is the “high” heroin users are seeking.

The Effect of Heroin On The Brain

As heroin enters the body and reaches the brain, it is converted back into morphine. The morphine binds molecules on cells called opioid receptors. These receptors are located in both the brain and body, and are responsible for the perceptions of pain and reward. Further, opioid receptors are located in the brain stem, which controls the processes for the body which are critical to life, including arousal, blood pressure, and respiration, as reported on the National Institute of Drug Abuse website.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin On The Brain

While researchers continue to explore the ways heroin effects the brain, some effects of heroin are quite apparent. One of these is the fact that as users continue to use heroin, their brain becomes more tolerant of it; in other words, each time they use, or at least over time, they need to take more of the drug to achieve the “high” feeling. Another effect is dependence, or the need to continue using the drug to avoid the hefty withdrawal symptoms that will follow disuse. Also, as reported by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, some studies have shown deterioration of the brain’s white matter, and this is believed to affect decision-making which in turn may affect the ability to control behavior and response.

Long-term Effects of Heroin on the Body

Abusing heroin can have serious health effects. Some of these are as follows, as listed on the National Institute of Drug Abuse website:

  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV
  • Fatal overdose

Beyond these possible side effects, the National Institute of Drug Abuse lists the following conditions which chronic users may develop resulting from continued use:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Constipation and gastrointestinal cramping
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Pulmonary complications

If one uses street heroin, it may also be contaminated or contain toxic additives — which can cause multiple variations of damage to vital organs. In addition to the dependence of the brain on heroin mentioned above, over time a user may become physically addicted to the drug as well. This means that the body will begin to experience severe withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, such as:

  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes
  • Goose bumps
  • Kicking movements

Tuberculosis can also result, due to the poor condition of the body with continued use, as can arthritis. Finally, the addict’s lifestyle is not kind to the body; sharing of needles can result in many infections, some of which are listed above, and the majority of some major infectious diseases, such as Hepatitis C, are caused from drug users who inject and share needles, as found on the Drug Free World website.

Doing Our Part to Stop the Heroin Epidemic

Although deaths associated with heroin overdose are on the rise, there are strategic measures available which can be taken to aid in dropping that statistic, as listed by the Drug Policy Alliance website. Some of these include:

  • Helping users get access to naloxone, a medicine which could save their lives
  • Starting the call for legal actions which will encourage people to seek help for overdose victims
  • Providing training for the prevention, response to, and recognition of an overdose

Of perhaps even further interest is the fact that the chance of surviving an overdose depends largely on how quickly the victim receives care. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the one- to three-hour period after a victim injects a drug tends to be the time frame within which most overdose deaths occur. Therefore, it is of vital importance that when an overdose occurs, the victim receives help as quickly as possible. One way to encourage this in those witnessing an overdose (who may be users also) is to ensure they will be exempt from arrest, a condition known as a 911 Good Samaritan immunity law.

If you or someone close to you is using heroin, and you would like to find more information on ways to help, please contact us at We are here to offer help and support for those struggling with addiction, as well as the families, friends, and loved ones affected.

Drug Free World - International Statistics

Drug Free World - The Truth About Heroin

Drug Policy Alliance - 911 Good Samaritan

Drug Policy Alliance - Heroin Facts

National Institute of Drug Abuse - Drug Facts: Heroin

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