What are Heroin’s Effects on the Body

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Heroin use has significant short and long-term effects. Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensations. With heroin, the rush is accompanied by warm skin flushing, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur. After the initial effects, users will usually be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

Guardian Recovery will examine heroin’s effects on the body, the short-term and long-term effects of heroin use, and how you can seek treatment for yourself or someone you love who has a heroin use disorder.

If you or someone you love has a heroin use disorder, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We are dedicated to providing the most comprehensive and individualized medically monitored detox program. To learn more about our programs, contact us today

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Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

When a person takes a drug such as morphine or heroin, the drug enters the central nervous system in the brain and binds to receptors responsible for pain and pleasure. When binding to the pain pathway, opioids provide pain relief. However, when binding to the reward pathway, heroin causes euphoria and releases a key neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine signals the neurons of the body to create a pleasurable feeling or “high.” The brain is naturally wired to repeat processes that trigger the reward pathway. Therefore, this may lead to addiction.

Once heroin enters the brain, it is converted to morphine. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensations. With heroin, the rush is accompanied by warm skin flushing, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Nausea, vomiting, and severe itching may also occur.

After the initial effects, users will usually be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening. Slowed breathing can also lead to coma and permanent brain damage.

Additionally, heroin impacts the brain in specific ways. Here are the following ways heroin affects the brain and nervous system function.

How Heroin Affects Brain & Nervous System:

  • Heroin depresses breathing and heart rate.
  • Heroin reinforces drug-taking behavior by altering activity in the limbic system, which controls emotions.
  • Heroin can block pain messages transmitted through the spinal cord from the body.

Long-Term & Lasting Effects

Long-term effects related to heroin can impact various body parts based on how a person uses heroin. The three main ways of using heroin include smoking, snorting, or injection. There are multiple risks associated with each modality.

Risks specific to smoking heroin include chronic bronchitis, bacterial bronchitis, and inflammation in the airway, leading to chronic coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Additionally, there is a risk of early-onset emphysema, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and barotrauma. These conditions cause swelling, inflammation, and trapped air in the lungs.

Some injection heroin users report snorting or smoking heroin first eased their transition to needle drug use. It is also increasingly common for heroin to be cut with other dangerous, potent opioids like illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a significant risk factor for overdose no matter how heroin is taken.

The side effects of snorting heroin include chronic runny nose, constant sniffing, nosebleeds, sores on the nostrils, holes in the septum, problems swallowing, and damage to the hard or soft palate in the mouth.

Snorting heroin can cause health risks specific to the nose and mouth.

All forms of heroin use are harmful to one’s brain, body, and, specifically, the central nervous system.

Long-term side effects of chronic needle use for heroin may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease. Additionally, heroin creates unique risks because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases from sharing needles or unsafe injection tools.

Withdrawal Symptoms After Using Heroin

Heroin withdrawal can occur within hours of someone’s last dose of heroin. Typically, heroin withdrawal starts around 8 to 24 hours after a person’s previous use. Heroin withdrawal can last anywhere from 3 to 10 days.

Short-Term Signs & Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal May Include:

  • Fast pulse.
  • Increased breathing rate.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Elevated body temperature.
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Unusually heightened reflexes.
  • Sweating.
  • Goosebumps.
  • Watery discharge from eyes and nose.
  • Muscle spasms, cramps, and pain.
  • Bone pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

At Guardian Recovery, we understand how difficult heroin withdrawal can be. Often, withdrawal symptoms are so severe that those struggling with heroin addiction return to using within 24 hours. The key to overcoming this obstacle is a medically supervised detox where withdrawal symptoms can be identified and treated immediately.

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Medical Complications That Can Result From Heroin

As mentioned, specific medical complications can occur based on the type of modality a person chooses to use heroin. There are particular risks and medical complications related to smoking, snorting, or injecting heroin. When a person uses smoking as the primary modality, a person is at risk for increased risk of lung disease and chronic inflammation.

Increased Risk of COPD

Similarly, these lung problems can increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a progressive disease that can lead to heart and lung cancer.

Chronic Cough

As an opioid, heroin can suppress coughing short term. However, smoking it can make a person develop a chronic cough. Even more concerning, research suggests that long-term heroin abuse can increase the risk of developing asthma.

Lung Cancer

Not only do smoking substances lead to chronic pulmonary diseases such as asthma and COPD, but it also increases the risk of lung cancer. The act of inhaling toxic substances damages lung tissues, and the poisonous chemicals used to cut heroin are cancer-causing agents.

Hormone Imbalance

Long-term heroin abuse produces hormonal imbalances in both men and women. Women may begin having irregular menstrual cycles, and men may struggle with sexual dysfunction. These hormonal imbalances can also contribute to symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mental health disorders.

Lung & Respiratory Issues

Smoking any substance takes a severe toll on the lungs and airways. Heroin can be cut with toxic chemicals that are damaging to the lungs. Over time, smoked heroin can lead to lung complications like tuberculosis or pneumonia.

Another way the lungs are affected is by chronic respiratory depression. Heroin is a central nervous system depressant that slows down body functions and heart rate. When users overdose, their breathing is slowed to the point that it can be life-threatening. Over time, this respiratory depression can lead to chronic breathing problems.

Constipation

Heroin is classified as an opioid, and opioids are well-known for causing constipation. Some reports show that as many as 80% of people who take opioids as prescribed for chronic pain experience constipation or bowel disorder related to opioid use.

Even when people take prescription opioids for pain relief and not using them recreationally, doctors warn of the risk of chronic constipation. Chronic constipation is having fewer than three bowel movements a week and difficulty passing stools that last for at least several weeks.

Insomnia

Heroin induces insomnia and interacts with sleep in several ways. First, it interacts with the body’s dopamine, which regulates a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Secondly, since heroin is morphine, it induces drowsiness and causes a person to sleep shortly after use, significantly impacting their ability to maintain a normal sleep cycle. Finally, after heroin use, the body will experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms affecting a person’s sleep ability.

Pneumonia

No matter how a person ingests heroin (through smoking, injecting, or snorting), chronic heroin users experience various medical complications, including insomnia and constipation. Lung complications (including different types of pneumonia and tuberculosis) may result from the poor health of the user as well as from heroin’s effect of depressing respiration.

Infection & Diseases

Long-term side effects of chronic needle use for heroin may develop collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, and liver or kidney disease. Additionally, heroin creates unique risks because of the transmission of HIV and other diseases from sharing needles or unsafe injection tools.

Hepatitis, HIV, and other diseases can spread through the injection of heroin if people use needles, syringes, or other tools used by someone who has had one of these infections.

During the last decade, the United States has seen an increase in injection drug use, primarily the injection of opioids. Outbreaks of hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV infections coincide with increased injection use.

Most new hepatitis C diseases are due to injection drug use, and the country has seen hepatitis C increase 4.9 times from 2010 to 2019. New hepatitis C infections are increasing most often among young people, with the most significant occurrence among individuals aged 20-39.

Until recently, CDC had observed a decline since the mid-1990s in HIV diagnoses associated with injection drug use. However, new HIV infections among people who inject drugs increased by 12% from 2014 to 2019.

Collapsed Veins

Because a person may not be using clean or sterilized needles when intravenously using heroin, bacterial infections can occur. These infections can occur locally at the drug use site or spread from the injection site. Examples of conditions that may not need hospitalization include cellulitis, abscesses, and ​​thrombophlebitis. However, severe bacterial infections, such as bacteremia, endocarditis, osteomyelitis, and central nervous system abscesses, can occur. Treatment for these infections requires hospitalization.

Perforated & Damaged Septum From Snorting

Snorting heroin can cause your nose’s blood vessels and tissue to break down, leading to frequent runny noses and nosebleeds. Over time, the damage to your nose can become severe.

Nasal septum perforation, a condition where holes develop in the septum (the wall between the nostrils), is a potential long-term side effect of snorting drugs like heroin.

The Effect of Heroin on Mental Health

Heroin has a significant effect on mental health. A person who begins to show signs of drug dependence and starts to form an addiction most likely has been predisposed to traumatic events and uses drugs as a form to numb or self-medicate from their mental health symptoms.

Additionally, withdrawing from drugs can induce several mood and mental health disorders. It is essential that when a person seeks addiction treatment, they find a program for co-occurring mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation.

Development of Depression

Research has found that people abusing opioids often have a comorbidity of depression. Left untreated, depressive symptoms can make recovery even more difficult.

The relationship between opioid abuse and depression is strongly correlated. Opioid use has been linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders.

But some research suggests that simply using prescription opioids can put one at higher risk for depression. Researchers found that 10% of over 100,000 patients prescribed opioids developed depression after using the medications for over a month. These patients were taking the drug for ailments such as back pain, headaches, and arthritis and had not received a diagnosis of depression before treatment.

Personality Disorders

Comorbidity of personality disorders and substance use disorders is common in mental health treatment. Borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder are found to be associated with substance use disorders.  Research suggests the prevalence of personality disorders ranges from 10% to 14.8% in the average population and from 34.8% to 73.0% in patients treated for addictions.

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At Guardian Recovery, we remain dedicated to providing our clients with a comprehensive program of heroin detox — one that focuses on much more than physical stabilization. In addition to emphasizing physical recovery, we tackle mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While we prioritize a safe and pain-free cocaine withdrawal, we offer individualgroup, and family therapy sessions, case management services, relapse prevention training, and aftercare planning.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to begin an entirely new way of life and commit to long-term recovery. As soon as you call, we start developing a plan of action that begins with an initial pre-assessment. This assessment helps us determine which level of care is the most appropriate for each unique case. We identify potential coverage options if our medically monitored detox program is a good fit. We work closely with most major regional and national insurance providers. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation insurance benefit check.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-heroin-use
  2. https://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs3/3843/3843p.pdf
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27858495/#:~:text=Smoking%20crack%20cocaine%2C%20nasal%20insufflation,visits%20and%20hospitalizations%20for%20asthma.
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0306453079900283
  5. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-medical-complications-chronic-heroin-use
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4027019/
  7. https://nida.nih.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2020/03/connections-between-sleep-substance-use-disorders
  8. https://www.cdc.gov/ssp/syringe-services-programs-summary.html#:~:text=Viral%20hepatitis%2C%20HIV%2C%20and%20other,had%20one%20of%20these%20infections.
  9. https://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12954-022-00624-6
  10. https://publichealth.jhu.edu/2011/martins-opioids
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21999943/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6241194/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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