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Short-Term Effects Of Heroin

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

March 11, 2019

Heroin, an illegal opioid drug, is one of the most potent and addictive drugs abused today. Even in the short term, due to the way this drug depresses the central nervous system, heroin has the capacity to create numerous physical and physiological changes, and may, in some cases, cause addiction, overdose, and death.

Heroin abuse and addiction should be addressed by trained professionals. With concerns of addiction, a medical detox should be employed, to decrease the risk of various uncomfortable side effects and dangers. Inpatient drug rehab centers are best equipped for serious addictions, such as heroin, and utilize behavioral therapies, counseling, and other modalities to treat addiction and prevent relapse.

Despite its illegal standing, heroin has gained momentum within the world of illicit drug use. Once construed as a drug that was only used within the darker sectors of society, today the prevalence of heroin knows no societal bounds, with addiction affecting individuals from all walks of life. This drug has the potential to pollute a person’s body, brain, and life, creating harmful effects in both the short and long term. In the short term, heroin alters a person’s physical and physiological states, and abuse may go so far as to cause addiction, overdose, and in some cases, death.

What Is Heroin And How Do People Use The Drug?

Heroin is one of the most potent and addictive drugs, either of illicit or medical origins. This potency is due to its roots as an opioid drug; specifically, heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring derivative from the opium poppy plant. Heroin comes to America from international locations, predominantly, Columbia, Mexico, and Southeast or Southwest Asia.

The drug itself most typically comes in two forms, either as a powder or as “black tar heroin,” the latter surfacing with either a black, sticky consistency or a harder, coal-like form. In its pure state, heroin is a white powder, on the other hand, black tar heroin is ridden with impurities. Heroin is quite commonly, and dangerously, cut with other compounds, including various household substances and even other drugs.

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The method of administration lends itself largely to the purity of the drug, with individuals choosing to snort or smoke the pure form or dissolve and inject more impure varieties. The way a person chooses to abuse the drug influences how quickly and to what extent they feel the drug’s effects. Heroin abuse is associated with a rush and euphoria or an intense sense of well-being.

How Does Heroin Create Its Effect?

Like other opioid drugs, when a user abuses heroin, the effects are felt due to the way the drug affects a person’s neurochemistry. In the case of heroin, this impact occurs quite rapidly. Our brains contain naturally occurring opiates, and as heroin is similar to our body’s natural line of defense against pain—opiate neurotransmitters called endorphins—heroin is able to attach to our brain’s opioid receptor sites.

When this occurs two things happen—foremost, the pleasurable and pain-relieving effects abusers seek, and secondly, the first stages of what could develop into a dependence. According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), intravenous, or IV injection, delivers the quickest and most powerful sensation, with heightened effects occurring after only seven to eight seconds. On the other hand, intramuscular injection has a more delayed action, with euphoria occurring after five to eight minutes. Lastly, when a user snorts or smokes the drug, it takes 10 to 15 minutes before the effects occur.

How Does Dependence And Tolerance Come Into Effect?

As heroin is an extremely potent and quick-acting drug, certain elements such as dependence and tolerance may occur in a fairly short period. The potential for dependence derives from the way heroin acts upon your opioid receptor sites. When heroin binds to these receptors, your brain’s natural versions are unable to do so, thus signaling that the production of these versions should slow down. With repeated use, these amounts diminish even further, to the extent that your body becomes reliant, or dependent, on the heroin to fulfill their role. Also, with repeated use comes another concern—a tolerance.

As a person abuses heroin in increasing amounts and frequencies, your body and brain becomes accustomed to its effect, leaving the user without the initial feel-good state they once experienced. To overcome this, a user will have to take more of the drug to create the coveted effect. Despite this, it is important to differentiate that this does not mean that they are immune from heroin’s effects. On the contrary, tolerance often precedes an overdose. In many cases, overdose may be deadly. Aside from this most severe and life-threatening effect, there are a variety of other adverse effects linked to short-term heroin abuse.

What Are The Short-Term Effects Of Heroin?

As soon as heroin enters your system it begins changing the way your body and brain function. Many of these effects are witnessed in very visible symptoms, such as:

Occurring fairly immediately:

  • Rush or euphoria
  • Skin warms and becomes flushed
  • Limbs or extremities feel weighted
  • Dry mouth
  • Intense itching

Occurring shortly after:

  • Impaired mental functioning
  • Slurred speech
  • Constricted pupils
  • Alternating between drowsiness and wakefulness
  • Respiration depression
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain relief
  • Spontaneous abortion (miscarriage)

As opposed to many other drugs of abuse, addiction, specially a “severe addiction,” may occur after only one use, as cautioned by CESAR. In these instances, then, a person may also quickly experience withdrawal, which can occur as quickly as a few hours after a person takes their last dose.

Another very dangerous effect which may also occur within early use, is the contraction of an infectious disease, such as HIV/AIDS and/or hepatitis B or C. While many people may equate these risks to IV drug use, those who choose to snort or smoke heroin may also face these risks, as these individuals are more apt to engage in unsafe sexual practices while under the influence.

While some of these effects may seem fairly harmless, it is important to take a step back and consider that each, however small, points to the greater issue at hand—that heroin is exerting a toxic, and forceful, effect on the user, to the point where their body experiences physical, physiological, and mental changes. These side effects are warning signs—if this abuse is left untreated, more serious and even deadly results may occur.

How Does Heroin Cause Overdose?

Like other opioid drugs, heroin is a central nervous system depressant. The central nervous system (CNS) is one of your body’s most important systems, tasked for relegating critical bodily functions responsible for life support, such as your blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory functions. Any time a person uses this drug, their CNS system is affected. As already evidenced, heroin abuse may cause the aforementioned body functions to slow down. When this system is severely compromised, as in some instances of heroin abuse, certain extreme, and fatal, side effects may occur. For some, prolonged use which leads to tolerance precedes this risk, however, for others, heroin may cause an overdose on even the first use.

An overdose may cause coma, delirium, or death, and signs of an overdose include slowed, shallow, or breathing; weak pulse, pinpoint pupils; blue hued nails, or lips; convulsions, and disorientation, among others. An overdose is a very dire situation, requiring medical help immediately. Using heroin with other drugs (polysubstance abuse), as is quite common within heroin abuse, increases the risk of overdose.

How Is Heroin Abuse And Addiction Treated?

Due to its highly addictive nature, it may be wise that any form of heroin abuse precluding addiction, be treated. In these instances, if addiction has not yet occurred, an outpatient treatment program may be sufficient for a person’s needs. However, should a person be facing addiction, we strongly urge you to consider an inpatient drug rehab program, so that you, or your loved one, might experience the most effective and intensive care which exists to treat your concerns.

Inpatient programs are well-equipped to handle serious addictions, such as those commonly associated with heroin. Within one, a person will reside on-site, granting them full access to a supportive and highly-trained staff at every hour of the day. Firstly, in situations of addiction, a person must detox. Withdrawal from heroin can be very uncomfortable, and in some cases life-threatening, because of this, a medical detox, as is offered in many rehab facilities is the first step towards recovery.

Both during, and after a person has successfully detoxed, they may encounter medication-assisted therapies to aid them in overcoming not just the physical, but mental and emotional impact of this drug. Methadone, buprenorphine (Suboxone), and naltrexone are medications specifically used for opioid drug treatment and may be implemented with other medications like certain antidepressants or medications for anxiety.

Various behavioral therapies may be used to aid a person in overcoming negative thought and behavioral patterns, while aiding them in developing more positive initiatives for change, an example includes cognitive behavioral therapy. Counseling, family programs, dual diagnosis care, relapse prevention skill building, and aftercare support may also be used at this time.

We Can Help You Find Hope For The Short And Long Term

If you’ve only just begun to abuse heroin, please let us help you find the means to stop before it causes any more damage to your life. If you’re already addicted, there is hope. can help you to develop a plan of action, by examining your financial options against your treatment choices. Contact us today.

Center for Substance Abuse Research - Heroin

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Research Report Series: Heroin

Drug Enforcement Administration - Drugs Of Abuse: Heroin

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