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Long-Term Effects Of Heroin Use

Dr. Gerardo Sison

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison

April 1, 2019

Anytime a person uses a drug illicitly, they set themselves upon a trajectory that can have long-lasting effects. Certain substances impact the body and mind in a greater capacity, allowing their effects to create a wider and more far-reaching array of damage. Understanding how heroin can impact a user in the long-term may help save a life.

Heroin is an opiate that is synthesized from morphine, a drug that originates from the Asian opium poppy plant. It comes in either a powdered form, or what is called “black tar heroin.” Users either inject, inhale, or snort it, each of these ways carrying with them unique risks that we will discuss in greater depth.


While this may seem obvious to state, it is a serious and life-threatening situation that we must touch on. Heroin is extremely addictive and can bring about damage to your mental, physical, and emotional states, as well as jeopardizing your personal, vocational, and educational endeavors. We mention this first because it often precedes or increases the chances of developing the following risks.

Financial And Legal Implications

Like any addiction, heroin costs money. As a person falls further into the throes of their drug use, they begin to output a greater amount of their financial resources to supplement their addiction. They may begin to use money that should be used for other things—their mortgage, groceries, bills, and other expenses—that relate to taking care of themselves and their loved ones.

They may even be apt to steal, either money or objects that they can sell or pawn, to cover this expense. In addition to the legal ramifications of this, using heroin is illegal, which alone is enough to embroil a person in legal troubles, which in turn, requires more money. Both of these things can upset your future and affect your loved ones.

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Collapsed Veins

Many heroin users choose to inject the drug, which is a very invasive means of administering the drug directly into the vein. This can cause scarring, ulcers, and collapsed veins. Collapsed veins occur when a person inserts a needle so often into a vein’s lining that irritation, trauma, or swelling occurs, and eventually a blockage, as the vein recedes into itself.

This is not the only risk of using heroin intravenously. Next we discuss the other ways in which this method can cause significant harm to a person.

Abscesses And Bacterial Infections

Again, introducing a needle into your skin and vein presents numerous risks. Many times a person may miss their vein and inject the drug subcutaneously (into the layer of fat beneath your skin) or intramuscularly (within the muscle tissue). As heroin is often mixed with other things, bacteria, fungus, pathogens, and other contaminants can be introduced into these areas. When you inject heroin, these things take up residence in your body, which can cause infections, especially since your immune system is comprised from the drug’s toll on your body.

The negative introduction of said contaminants can cause complications in other areas of your body, like abscesses in your skin (which also may result from repeated injections in the same site), cellulitis, and in severe cases, necrotizing fasciitis, which some people refer to as a “flesh eating” bacteria,. In truth, this bacteria moves rapidly, destroying your body’s soft tissue, which is a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention.

Infectious Diseases

This drug’s methods of delivery greatly increase a person’s chances of contracting an infectious disease. The risk is higher for those who inject, being that they may be inclined to share or use “dirty” needles. This occurs due to the increased risk of transmission of bodily fluids, occurring not only from injecting but from the unsafe sexual practices that may often result from this drug use. Due to this, those who do not inject can contract HIV and viral hepatitis type C, the two most severe diseases that can occur from this drug use. In addition, a person can also develop hepatitis B.

HIV can be readily transmitted through needles. In 2009, the CDC’s National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System studied the drug use behaviors of 10,073 IDUs in 20 major U.S. cities, they found that 9 percent of new cases of HIV in the U.S. that year derived from injection drug users (IDUs).

Those who choose to inject are at the highest risk for contracting hepatitis (HCV) infection, to the extent that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) tells us, in 2010 53 percent of new cases in the U.S. were among injection drug users. They also noted another frightening statistic: of the IDUs with HCV, there is a strong likelihood that they will infect 20 other people.

NIDA reports that non-injecting heroin users (NIUs) are at an increased risk of developing infectious diseases and turning to injection. They found that roughly 9.5 percent of these users had developed hepatitis B, which “develop into chronic infection and serious liver disease in up to 20 percent of cases.”

These infectious diseases can cause further complications and disease.

Complications And Disease Of Your Internal Organs

In an article published by NIDA, Dr. Henry Francis then director of their Center on AIDS and Other Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse, stated that “HCV leads to chronic liver infection in about 80 percent of patients, most of whom eventually develop fatal liver diseases such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.”

People who chronically use heroin can develop infections in their heart lining and valves (endocarditis). HIV and HCV are both associated with renal disease, or disease of the kidneys.

Heroin isn’t always pure, it is commonly mixed, cut, or laced with other additives or drugs, which presents even greater concern. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids elaborates on the risk this imposes on a person’s body, stating “In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin may have additives that do not really dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs.”

Cognitive Impairment

When someone uses heroin, they experience the high or rush because of the way the drug is powerfully impacting their brain. Prolonged use can cause damage to your brain’s functioning. The University of Arizona outlines the stark reality of this, reporting that “Chronic use or abuse of heroin can lead to long lasting and deleterious impairments on intellectual functioning. The negative effects on brain functioning may include a decrease in working memory, episodic memory, and decision making. In addition, active heroin addicts may exhibit poor impulse control, planning, decision making, verbal functioning, and visual-spatial analysis.”

Complications Within Pregnancy and Fetal Damage

If a mother uses heroin while she is pregnant, she is exposing the developing child to the toxicity of heroin. This can cause spontaneous abortion, placental abruption, stillbirth, premature birth, birth defects, neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and low birthweight. If you’re using heroin while you’re pregnant, do not quit suddenly or “cold turkey.” Please seek the assistance of a trained medical professional or an addiction specialist, as this can be very dangerous to your baby’s health.

Overdose And Death

Heroin is a powerful drug. As people strive to overcome their tolerance, they may use greater amounts of the drug, which puts them at a heightened risk of overdose. This. in many cases, can be fatal. In lesser instances, though still serious, an overdose may result in other health concerns, including coma, which could cause brain damage. The Center for Substance Abuse Research cited research that found that “54% of regular injecting drug users reported experiencing at least one non-fatal overdose in their lifetime.” Remember, just because you or your loved one has a tolerance to a drug, doesn’t mean that they are immune to its devastating risks.

Other Long-Term Repercussions

In addition to the more serious concerns we listed above, a long-term heroin user may develop the following problems:

  • Withdrawal upon ceasing use
  • Insomnia
  • Dental issues, including gum problems and poor teeth
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Sexual dysfunction, including impotence in men and inability to orgasm (anorgasmia) in both men and women
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Cognitive impairment, including problems with memory and learning
  • Depression
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Gastrointestinal problems, including constipation and cramping
  • Rheumatological concerns, including arthritis
  • Nutritional imbalances

Though heroin might make a user feel euphoric, or like their worries are far away, this feeling is only temporary and masks a spectrum of very serious, life-altering conditions.

We Can Help You To Stop The Harm

It’s never too late to find help and seek sobriety. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can put a halt to the continuing damage on your body. Our team at understands heroin abuse and addiction, and we can direct you towards the rehabilitation program that is best for you. Contact us today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Heroin Snorters Risk Transition To Injection Drug Use And Infectious Disease

Center for Substance Abuse Research - Heroin

University of Arizona - Medical Complications

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Research Report Series: Heroin

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