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What is heroin addiction?

What is heroin addiction?

Written by Drew Redd. Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy.

I am so proud to be a part of such an amazing facility and team. Not only are the staff very knowledgeable about treating addiction, but we care and empathize with the struggling addict, as well. Coming from someone who has struggled with addiction for years, I have confidence when I say that everything about Ardú…is geared up to help any addict in need.

Marissa Ramos


Heroin is dangerously addictive. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 106,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2021 in the U.S., including heroin. Heroin addiction can spiral into chemical dependency fast, but recovery is possible with help. 

Ardu Recovery Center tailors heroin treatment programs to help you break free from the grip of substance use disorder with compassion and evidence-based care.

The expert staff at our heroin detox center walks with you on the path to overcoming addiction with medication assistance and around-the-clock supervision. 

Table of Contents

Contact our drug rehab center in Provo, Utah, and take the first step to overcoming addiction.

What is heroin?

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive opioid drug processed from morphine, which comes from the opium poppy plant. It typically comes as a white or brown powder or black sticky substance (black tar heroin) that is injected, smoked, or snorted, providing a rapid, intense high.

Because of heroin’s intense habit-forming nature, it is considered one of the most dangerous and deadliest drugs out there. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 500,000 people battled heroin use disorder in 2013, 84% of which showed dependence. 

At the heart of heroin dependence is the way it interacts with the brain.

Why is heroin so addictive?

Heroin enters the brain quickly, where it is converted back into morphine and binds to mu-opioid receptors (MORs). These receptors are part of the brain’s reward system, which includes areas responsible for regulating feelings of pleasure and well-being. By activating these pleasure centers, heroin triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, causing the intense euphoria or “rush” users experience.

Johnson and North explain that heroin inhibits nerve cells that normally control dopamine neurons, lifting this brake on dopamine activity. This allows heroin to ultimately excite the brain’s dopamine reward system more strongly than natural stimuli can, producing intense euphoria—but also suppressing vital functions such as breathing and heartbeat. 

Over time, adaptations to override this excessive dopamine signaling prompt heroin users to take more and more to get the same effects, building tolerance. This quickly turns into dependence, where negative emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms emerge if heroin use stops

Researchers at Yale Medicine suggest that addiction causes ingrained changes to brain pathways that make drug-seeking habitual and compulsive, even if the person addicted to heroin wants to stop using. 

Addiction can also cause problems with focus, memory, and learning, not to mention decision-making and judgement. Seeking drugs, therefore, is driven by habit—and not conscious, rational decisions.

This supports the idea that addiction is a disease that stems from biological processes in the brain, rather than a personal choice. 

How does heroin affect your health?

Heroin addiction has adverse health effects that worsen over long periods of continued use. The constant presence of the toxin disrupts normal bodily functions and the brain’s chemical balances.

Here are some of the potential health effects of heroin use:

  1. Heroin abuse can significantly change the structure and physiology of your brain. Heroin use can cause long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems, impairing decision-making and behavior-regulating abilities, as well as responses to stressful situations. 
  2. It can damage the respiratory system. Heroin affects the brain’s opioid receptors which are also tied to breathing. This can alter breathing patterns and potentially lead to chronic respiratory issues, as well as insufficient oxygen delivery to the brain, which can cause severe issues.
  3. The use of contaminated injection equipment can lead to bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, such as endocarditis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin users who share syringes have an increased risk of contracting infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C.
  4. Heroin addicts may suffer from hypoxic or ischemic brain damage, which can result in severe mental disturbances. Autopsies on 100 intravenous heroin addicts found that 5-10% had damage to the globus pallidus area of the brain from lack of oxygen. The globus pallidus coordinates movement, thinking, and drive. Damage to this region can impair mental faculties and motor control.
  5. Chronic heroin users may experience a wide range of medical complications such as:
    • Lung complications (e.g., pneumonia and tuberculosis)
    • Mental disorders
    • Sexual dysfunction
    • Irregular menstrual cycles
    • Immune reactions that cause arthritis or other rheumatologic problems
    • Bone damage and muscle loss

Start your journey to health and sobriety by breaking free of heroin’s hold. Our caring team in the heroin detox center will help you embrace counseling and build the community you need to thrive in recovery. Our experience and proven protocols help you to safely, comfortably, and effectively detox from a wide range of substances including fentanyl, oxycodone, codeine, and other opioids. 

Learn more about our opioid detox services

What are the signs of heroin abuse?

Heroin abuse can manifest through an array of physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms. While they may vary and depend on the person’s habits and frequency of use, some common indicators show an increasing dependence on heroin.

Here’s how you can recognize a person is abusing heroin:

  1. Track marks from vein injections (the user will likely wear long sleeves to hide them)
  2. Constricted or pinpoint pupils
  3. Constant runny nose and sniffles
  4. Dramatic weight loss
  5. Lethargy, slurred speech, and poor coordination
  6. Lying about heroin use
  7. Isolation from friends and activities
  8. Financial problems and stealing
  9. Withdrawal symptoms if heroin use stops

Heroin shares many common symptoms of addiction with other substances. Check out our guide on how to recognize signs of drug addiction. If you notice any symptoms of substance use in your loved ones, contact Ardu today.

How common is heroin addiction in the United States?

Heroin addiction affects thousands and thousands of people in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), close to 950,000 Americans reported that they had used heroin in 2015, a number that has continued to increase since 2007. The Addiction Center reports that about 25% of Americans who try the drug will become addicted. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in heroin users. 

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) reported that 15 percent of U.S. drug users have used heroin. Given that there were 37.3 million illegal drug users aged 12 years and older in 2020, approximately 5.6 million people in the United States have used heroin at least once in their lifetime. 

One factor that plays a major role in this increase is that people are transitioning from using other opioids to heroin. More than 90% of addicts reported that they stopped using prescription opioid drugs and started using heroin because it is less expensive and easier to get. 

The number of overdose deaths from heroin use in these areas is also increasing. 

Can heroin addiction lead to death?

Heroin addiction can be life-threatening. Heroin directly suppresses critical functions such as breathing, heart rate, and wakefulness. When you overdose, these effects can slow or stop breathing altogether, leading to coma or death in minutes. 

A heroin overdose depresses critical body functions, sometimes fatally. Here’s how to recognize a heroin overdose:

  • Slow, irregular, or stopped breathing
  • Pale, bluish skin and fingers
  • Small pupils
  • Weak pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Disorientation, delirium
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Seizures
  • Coma

If any signs of opioid overdose appear, especially depressed breathing, immediately call 911. Time is critical during heroin overdoses, which usually start 10 minutes after injecting. 

Thankfully, heroin overdoses and deaths in the United States have declined in recent years. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug overdose deaths involving heroin dropped to 13,165 deaths in 2020 and went further down to 9,173 deaths in 2021. 

Without treatment, the physical and social spiraling of heroin addiction can ultimately claim your life through disease, violence, suicide, or overdose. Specialized addiction and dual diagnosis treatment can help break this cycle before it’s too late.

Heroin abuse vs. addiction

Heroin abuse and addiction both involve recreational use, but there are important distinctions.

  • Heroin abuse is the recreational or non-medical use of the drug to experience its short-term intoxicating effects. While dangerous and illegal, people who abuse heroin sometimes use it more casually in social settings.
  • Heroin addiction indicates physical and psychological dependence on increasing doses of the drug, leading to cravings and drug-seeking behaviors. Addicts develop tolerance over time, needing more heroin to achieve the desired effect without the ability to control or quit usage. 

While abuse seeks a temporary high, addiction is the compulsive pursuit of heroin to feel normal and avoid the excruciating symptoms of drug withdrawal. Addiction stems from changes in brain circuitry and hormone levels causing neurological imbalance when deprived of the drug. 

Regardless of the amount and frequency of use, both heroin abuse and addiction are extremely dangerous. 

We offer comprehensive drug detox services to help you safely and comfortably detox from heroin.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms

Heroin withdrawal refers to the unpleasant and sometimes dangerous physiological and psychological symptoms that occur when you stop or dramatically reduce use. It resembles a severe flu with added blows targeting emotions and mental health. 

Some common symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:

  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Sweating, goosebumps
  • Restless legs, insomnia
  • Cravings
  • Anxiety, agitation
  • Depression, suicidal thoughts

It can be extremely difficult and painful to detox from heroin, but with the right help, you can break free from heroin’s grip. At Ardu, we understand the agonies of withdrawal and meet you where you’re at with compassion. 

Our personalized programs focus not just on achieving sobriety, but also on laying foundations for emotional health and wellbeing. We want you to recover from heroin addiction while mending your body, mind, and spirit. That’s where our holistic addiction treatment can make all the difference. Holistic healing can empower you to break free and detox by combining traditional treatment modalities with alternative therapies.

How to treat heroin addiction

Ardu is such a warming place to be. The moment you walk through the doors you feel the love everyone has for one another. Staff genuinely cares about each other and the clients, they check in frequently and always try to make sure clients are getting the most out of the experience.

Melanie Ogden


The best time to find a heroin addiction treatment program is before an addiction sets in. Of course, that is rarely the case for most users. When they do decide to get clean and detox from heroin, they face a whole other set of difficulties. Overcoming drug addiction is a massive mountain to climb and should not be climbed alone.

To start your healing process, find a trusted heroin addiction treatment program. The reputable recovery programs at Ardu Recovery Center in Provo, Utah, are designed to get addicts back on their feet and free from the shackles of drug use. If you are ready to put in the work, our team of highly trained and experienced professionals will help you ease into a healthy and sober new life. 

Depending on your specific needs, we offer therapies and programs such as:

The first step in getting you clean is the detox.

Our heroin detox services

Ardu offers comprehensive drug detox services to help you safely and comfortably detox from heroin. Our experienced medical staff will develop an individualized treatment plan tailored to your unique needs and situation.

Our medical detox program provides 24/7 care and effective medications that alleviate withdrawal symptoms such as muscle aches, nausea, anxiety, and insomnia. We use prescription medications as needed to make the detox process as comfortable as possible.

As for our holistic detox, we offer nutritional therapy, yoga therapy, IV amino acid therapy, and massage to help relax the nervous system and restore balance as your body adjusts to life without heroin.

With personalized medical oversight and holistic therapies tailored to your needs, our heroin detox program helps you transition into addiction treatment with the best chance of success. 

Our heroin rehab services

At our heroin rehab center, we provide compassionate care to help you reclaim your health, happiness, and purpose. We offer comprehensive inpatient and outpatient treatments tailored to your unique needs.

Inpatient treatment provides round-the-clock structured support and intensive therapy daily. The benefits of our residential heroin addiction treatment program are:

  • A safe, trigger-free environment to focus completely on your recovery
  • Constant access to medical care and counseling
  • A tightly structured daily schedule centered on healing
  • Building a recovery community with peers for motivation

The outpatient treatment allows you to maintain your personal life while getting help every week, on a bi-weekly basis, and even daily if needed. The advantages of our outpatient treatment include:

  • More flexibility to continue working or caregiving
  • Lower costs than inpatient programs
  • Applying skills learned in your natural environment
  • Options range from intensive outpatient programs to more simple therapy sessions

You can choose our intensive outpatient programs or partial hospitalization programs, and work with us to find an outpatient program that works best for you.

Our team will thoughtfully assess your needs and insurance coverage to determine if residential care or outpatient care will give you the best chance of success given your current situation. Successful recovery is possible—we’re here to guide you.

If you want to verify your health insurance coverage, gather more payment information, and pursue the Medicaid redetermination process in Utah, visit our insurance verification page.

Drew Redd

Drew Redd is the executive director of Ardu Recovery Center and is dedicated to empowering people on their journey to sobriety.

Heroin addiction FAQ

What is the full word for heroin?

The full chemical name for heroin is diacetylmorphine. Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive opioid narcotic. It is synthesized from the natural opiate morphine, which is extracted and purified from the seed pods of the opium poppy plant. As an illicit drug heroin can be smoked, injected, or snorted by users to achieve a euphoric high. 

What is morphine made of?

Morphine is a natural alkaloid compound that is extracted by processing the dried sap from the thick pods of the opium poppy plant. Morphine acts as an opiate agonist, activating receptors in the brain to produce pain relief effects as well as drowsiness, slowed breathing, and reduced blood pressure when taken in doses larger than prescribed or recommended. Morphine is used medically as a prescription pain reliever but also has a high potential for abuse and is classified as a Schedule II narcotic drug.

Is morphine poisonous?

Morphine is a toxic poisonous substance if taken in excess amounts, though when taken properly in appropriate doses it is a legal and controlled medication for pain relief. Morphine causes respiratory, circulatory, and central nervous system depression and can lead to overdose and death due to effects like slowed or arrested breathing. Risks of morphine intoxication increase when morphine is combined with alcohol or prescription drugs like benzodiazepines.

What is the origin of the word heroine?

The original Greek word root of heroin is “hero”, referring to a figure possessing courageous fortitude and strength. Over time, the word evolved to signify a woman of notable heroic virtues or achievements. There is no direct link between the etymology of the word heroine and the narcotic drug “heroin”, though the similar sound implies misleading and dangerous associations with heroic qualities that heroin addiction in reality severely undermines.

What’s a duji?

Duji is a lesser-known street term for the illicit and addictive drug, heroin. As an opioid drug originating from the morphine compounds extracted from opium poppy plants, heroin was responsible for over 14,000 overdose deaths in 2018, according to the National Institutes of Health. Slang terms like “duji” help identify language patterns signaling heroin abuse so appropriate interventions, treatment referrals, and other support can be offered to break the vicious addiction cycle.

What should I look for in heroin rehab?

When you seek heroin rehab, consider these factors to ensure effective drug abuse treatment:

  1. Look for facilities that offer individualized care plans tailored to the specific needs of the person.
  2. Effective rehabs should provide a range of therapies and treatment modalities, including counseling, medical supervision, and support groups.
  3. Consider the reputation of the facility, its success rates, and whether it provides aftercare services to support people in their ongoing recovery journey.

What factors contribute to the disease of addiction?

Several factors contribute to the disease of addiction, including:

  1. Family unit dynamics can influence addiction susceptibility, as a history of addiction within a family can increase the risk. 
  2. Environmental factors such as stressors, trauma, and easy access to drugs can also play a significant role. 
  3. Substance misuse, especially in the case of opioids like heroin, can quickly lead to addiction. 
  4. The availability of drug paraphernalia and the influence of one’s social life can also be a factor for heroin use and further exacerbate addiction issues.

If you are struggling with heroin abuse, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Then, give us a call, and our healthcare professionals will work with you to come up with a heroin addiction treatment plan that helps you leave this destructive drug behind.


Trends in Heroin Use in the United States: 2002 to 2013. (n.d.). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_1943/ShortReport-1943.html

Drug Overdose Death Rates | National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023, September 25). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Johnson SW, North RA. Opioids excite dopamine neurons by hyperpolarization of local interneurons. J Neurosci. 1992 Feb;12(2):483-8. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.12-02-00483.1992. PMID: 1346804; PMCID: PMC6575608.

How an Addicted Brain Works. (2022, May 25). Yale Medicine. https://www.yalemedicine.org/news/how-an-addicted-brain-works

NIDA. 2021, April 13. Why does heroin use create special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/why-are-heroin-users-special-risk-contracting-hivaids-hepatitis-b-c on 2024, February 13

Andersen SN, Skullerud K. Hypoxic/ischaemic brain damage, especially pallidal lesions, in heroin addicts. Forensic Sci Int. 1999 May 31;102(1):51-9. doi: 10.1016/s0379-0738(99)00040-7. PMID: 10423852.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (n.d.). https://nsduhweb.rti.org/respweb/homepage.cfm

Yerby, N. (2024, January 18). Addiction Statistics – Facts On Drug And Alcohol Use – Addiction Center. Addiction Center. https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/addiction-statistics/

Drug Abuse in the United States. (n.d.). https://www.mfa.gov.cn/eng/wjbxw/202302/t20230209_11022554.html

Drug Overdose Death Rates | National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023, September 25). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Products – Vital Statistics Rapid Release – Provisional Drug Overdose Data. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm

Further reading

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