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The Dangers Of Smoking Heroin (Inhalation)

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

April 11, 2019

The dangers of smoking heroin include risk of developing addiction and physical dependence as well as nasal damage and lung irritation. Treatment for heroin abuse can help a person quit the use of heroin and effectively manage addictive behaviors.

Heroin abuse of any kind can be dangerous, but there is a specific set of risks and dangers associated with smoking heroin (heroin abuse by inhalation).

The following are the most commonly experienced and harmful risks of smoking heroin:

  • addiction and physical dependence
  • heroin overdose
  • development of tolerance
  • smoking health risks

Addiction And Physical Dependence

Smoking heroin exposes a person to risk of addiction and physical dependence, like other methods of abuse. While smoking heroin is perceived to be a safer method because it doesn’t carry the same health risks as heroin injection use, abuse of heroin through any means carries a risk of addiction.

Heroin is a highly addictive drug, so even moderate abuse can lead to addiction. The drug quickly works to change a person’s brain chemistry, replacing natural production of feel-good chemicals so the person comes to rely on heroin for this important brain function.

With time, the person’s brain may not produce happy chemicals at all unless the person is using heroin. This is known as a physical dependence and results in terribly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin withdrawal is rarely life-threatening, but the symptoms can be uncomfortable enough to keep a person caught in a cycle of use which began with casual heroin smoking. Smoking heroin that is laced with other substances can lead to even more harmful consequences than withdrawal and addiction: overdose.

Heroin Overdose

While risk of overdose with smoking heroin can be less than through other methods of use, overdose is still a risk. This is in part because heroin is often laced with other, harmful substances which can cause adverse reactions in the body or interact with heroin for compounded negative side effects.

Smoking heroin does not put the drug directly into the bloodstream as with other methods of abuse, so overdose is not as heavy a risk when smoking the drug. The danger lies in what a dose of heroin may contain.

Heroin is both made and sold illegally—there is no regulation of what is put in the drug, so a person buying heroin can never guarantee the purity of their dose. Because of this, each time a person abuses heroin they are taking a risk. It is often cut with substances which may be seemingly harmless, such as laundry soap or bath salts, but which can be harmful to a person’s body.

Substances found in heroin can be irritating and cause harm when using heroin by injection, but when smoking, these substances can cause problems from damage to irritation to potential overdose. This is especially true if heroin is laced with more potent opioid drugs, such as fentanyl. The number of fentanyl-laced overdose deaths in the United States has recently been on the rise.

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Development Of Tolerance

Repeated use of heroin also exposes a person to tolerance, or no longer being able to feel the effects of the drug. This means they may use it more often or in higher doses in order to get the desired effects, further increasing the risk of overdose. A person abusing heroin may not have a high enough tolerance to process fentanyl without experiencing overdose.

Even if tolerance does not result in overdose, it contributes to development of addiction and physical dependence, as a person who becomes tolerant will begin smoking heroin more and more, heightening the chances for developing an addiction or dependence.

Smoking Health Risks

Smoking heroin requires that a person melt the drug in a device, such as a tin-foil structure, and inhale the vapors. If a person inhaled a bad dose of heroin laced with harmful substances, this would put the substance into the person’s lungs, exposing them to whatever health risks can be associated with ingesting that substance.

Most heroin smoking health risks come from damage that can occur to the lungs from smoking, such as:

  • asthma attacks or worsened asthmatic symptoms
  • lung irritation
  • moderate risk of contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis from sharing straws or pipes (used to inhale heroin vapors)
  • nasal damage
  • perforated septum (main cartilage lining the nose) with long-term use

Side Effects Of Smoking Heroin

Because heroin abuse can lead to addiction, a person smoking heroin will likely repeatedly abuse the drug and may experience other general side effects as a result. Chronic heroin abuse may lead to changes to the structure and physical makeup of the brain and deterioration of the brain’s white matter, which is responsible for decision-making, behavior, and stress response.

With time and development of physical dependence, a person smoking heroin regularly can also experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be severe and result in behaviors a person wouldn’t necessarily engage in otherwise, like seeking heroin at any cost.

Essentially, one of the most dangerous side effects that can occur with smoking heroin is still developing an addiction to the drug, which can lead to repeated use, high risk of overdose, and a seemingly endless cycle of abuse. The chronic cycle of heroin abuse leads to increased chances of health risks, a vicious cycle which may be daunting but can be overcome with the right form of treatment.

Why Do People Smoke Heroin?

People may smoke heroin for a number of reasons. First, they may smoke it because they believe this method comes without many of the risks. Injecting heroin is by far, the most widely used method, but comes with endless risks. Injecting drugs without the proper precautions puts a person in danger of many health conditions and side effects.

While the method of smoking heroin does avoid some health risks, it is not totally without them. Smoking any substance can damage the nasal passages and lungs in a number of ways. There are no studies on the long-term effects of smoking heroin, but chronic smoking in general leads to a large risk for a number of conditions, including increased risk for several types of cancer and other diseases.

Further, people may smoke heroin because they believe it gives them more control over their abuse, leading to less chances of developing addiction. Smoking heroin provides a lesser high, so there is some foundation to this belief. However, heroin is an extremely powerful drug. Any use of it, no matter how controlled, comes with risk of addiction.

Treatment For People Who Smoke Heroin

There are now a number of treatment programs available for people struggling with heroin use disorders. Due to the drug’s highly addictive nature, the most effective form of treatment for those suffering from heroin abuse is inpatient addiction treatment programs.

These individualized programs are designed to custom-fit the needs of heroin-dependent individuals. Methods and treatments used within the program will depend on each participant’s level of heroin abuse, severity of addiction or dependence, frequency of abuse, duration of abuse, and any co-occurring mental health or substance use disorders.

Inpatient programs also account for any other health conditions a person may have, as comprehensive treatment is the best defense in managing heroin addiction. Medications can be used to ease withdrawal symptoms and help people effectively manage long-term (post-acute) withdrawal symptoms during treatment.

Because heroin addiction leads to behavioral changes which in turn contribute to addiction, treatment for heroin abuse often involves a behavioral therapy component, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. Both of these methods help individuals change their destructive thought patterns, which results in positive changes to behavior.

For more information on programs for people who struggle with smoking heroin, speak to a treatment specialist today.

Harm Reduction Coalition - H Is For Heroin

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What are the long-term effects of heroin use?

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