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What are the effects of heroin abuse?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on February 27, 2024

Heroin abuse causes negative effects in the physical, mental, social, and economic realms.

Heroin abuse leads to lasting neurological damage. Findings from NIDA show that prolonged heroin use changes the brain. In the process, it impairs decision-making, and functionality and reduces the user’s ability to handle stress. But it doesn’t end there.

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With compassion and care, our drug addiction treatment center can help you fight your addiction and guide you through the detox process safely.

What are the external physical effects of heroin abuse?

Long-term heroin abuse leaves conspicuous marks on the body. The injection scars, also known as “track marks”, that appear on the skin and blood vessels are probably the most obvious warning signs of heroin abuse. Addicts tend to neglect their bodies and often suffer from malnutrition.

Dutch researchers found that “people who smoke heroin appear to have a lower BMI and body weight than nonusers,” showing that heroin users are typically underweight and severely malnourished. 

Substances like heroin may compete with food in the brain activating reward pathways and increasing dopamine receptor’ availability, thus suppressing the appetite and leading to lower body weight. (Mahboub, et. al.)

Here are some of the external physical effects of heroin abuse:

  • Track marks and bruising from repeated injection sites
  • Collapsed veins from injection trauma
  • Cellulitis and other skin infections
  • Skin conditions such as eczema
  • Folliculitis and skin abscesses
  • Self-care neglect; uncleanliness, unkempt appearance
  • Hair thinning and dryness
  • Severe weight fluctuations
  • Premature skin aging
  • Rotting teeth

If you notice any of these signs in your loved ones, don’t hesitate to reach out. Ardu Recovery Center can help them through the compassionate and evidence-based heroin treatment program to curb cravings, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and embrace sobriety.

How does heroin affect the brain?

Heroin can have devastating effects on the brain. It alters its structure and physiology, causing long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems that are not easily reversed. 

Here is a detailed list of ways heroin abuse affects the brain:

  • It releases a surge of dopamine, causing a euphoric high and reinforcing addictive drug-seeking behavior. Over time, heroin abuse overloads and eventually damages dopamine receptors.
  • It induces long-term dysfunction in other neurotransmitters such as GABA, norepinephrine, and glutamate. Johnson and North found that this further drives the euphoric effects of heroin.
  • It triggers tolerance, dependence, and cravings as brain chemistry adapts to the drug. According to Kosten and George, repeated heroin use causes lasting changes in neuronal communication pathways governing reward, motivation, and self-control that underlie addictive behaviors.
  • It dulls the brain’s natural opioid peptide system involved in pain, pleasure, and behavioral regulation.
  • It alters the limbic system, associated with memory, emotions, and arousal.
  • It shrinks gray matter density. A 2012 study found that people who regularly abuse heroin have less grey matter in areas crucial for decision-making, judgment, and virtual tasks.
  • It blunts prefrontal cortex activity, impairing cognitive skills such as attention, planning, and motivation.
  • It creates changes in white matter tracts related to self-regulation, behavior modulation, and stress.
  • It changes neuronal plasticity. Harvard scholars have found that heroin addiction exploits the brain’s ability to continually rewire its circuitry based on experience by reinforcing compulsive drug use.
  • It increases the risk of mental health issues such as clinical depression and anxiety disorders due to chemical imbalances.

Heroin abuse causes tolerance and physical dependence because of the way it impacts the brain, which can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly stop or reduce use. 

We know quitting heroin can feel hopeless, but Ardu can help lighten the load and cheer you on as you regain health with each day clean. The caring medical team at our heroin detox center will be right by your side while you tackle the grueling first steps of withdrawal.

Contact the experts at Ardu today. 

How does heroin affect cardiovascular health?

Long-term heroin abuse quietly strains the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of cardiac complications down the road.

Here’s what the research says about the negative effects of heroin abuse on cardiovascular health:

  1. Heroin use can slow your heart function, leading to bradycardia, a condition characterized by a slower-than-normal heart rate. A 2001 study revealed that heroin “acts centrally to increase parasympathetic and reduce sympathetic activity, resulting in bradycardia and hypotension.”
  2. Heroin can provoke biphasic changes in blood pressure, initially causing a decrease in both systolic and diastolic pressure (hypotension). According to research, with ongoing use, heroin can raise blood pressure (hypertension), increasing heart attack and stroke risks. 
  3. Heroin may have a direct myotoxic effect on the heart muscle (myocardium) that contracts to pump blood. Indian researchers show that, during heroin overdoses, the substance can mimic signs of a minor heart attack, which can eventually lead to full-blown cardiac arrest.
  4. Heroin abuse has been associated with abnormal heart rhythms, such as tachycardia (rapid heart rate), palpitations, and hypotension. The CDC warns that these effects can be indicative of underlying cardiac arrhythmias. 
  5. Injecting heroin can lead to bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves. A case report on intravenous drug users reveals many complications of intravenous drug use, often affecting the heart valves and leading to severe infections.

How does heroin abuse affect the lungs?

Heroin abuse significantly impacts lung health, causing a range of serious respiratory issues. High doses of heroin used regularly can cause respiratory depression, slowing down breathing to dangerously low levels. 

A 2015 study showed that “chronic suppression of [neural respiratory drive] in the presence of underlying lung disease may be a risk factor for acute opioid-induced respiratory depression.” Respiratory depression can further deplete oxygen levels in the blood, which is harmful not only to the lungs but also to the heart and brain.

According to a 2020 American study and a 2021 Australian study, heroin use disorder is also associated with many other pulmonary complications such as:

  • Non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema (where fluid leaks into the lungs)
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung abscesses
  • Bronchoconstriction (narrowing of the air passages)
  • Septic pulmonary emboli: blockages in the lung’s blood vessels caused by infection

Over time, these effects can severely damage the lungs, contributing to chronic respiratory conditions and increasing the risk of respiratory failure. Heroin and other opioids pose a serious threat to your lungs, heart, brain, and other bodily systems. 

We know it’s not easy to break the cycle of addiction, especially when unpleasant withdrawal symptoms kick in. Our opioid detox center offers experience and proven protocols to help you detox from a wide range of substances safely and effectively.

How does heroin affect the liver and kidneys?

Evidence points to the deleterious effects of heroin abuse on both liver and kidney health. 

In the liver, chronic intravenous heroin use causes serious ultrastructural changes such as:

  • Degenerative vesicular and fat changes
  • Chronic active and persistent hepatitis and cirrhosis
  • A reduction in glycogen in hepatocytes

A 2010 study revealed that these changes are attributed to the liver’s increased workload in metabolizing heroin and its toxic metabolites. An overworked liver is due for cellular damage and compromised function. 

Heroin is one of the most dangerous drugs for kidneys. Heroin abuse is associated with kidney diseases, including:

  • Membranous nephropathy: damage to the kidneys’ filtering units, called glomeruli
  • Nephrotic syndrome: protein in urine and swelling due to kidney damage
  • Acute glomerulonephritis: sudden inflammation of glomeruli
  • Focal and segmental glomerulosclerosis: scarring of glomeruli clusters that worsens over time
  • Interstitial nephritis: inflammation of the kidneys’ tubules and surrounding structures
  • Rhabdomyolysis: breakdown of damaged muscle fibers releasing toxins into the blood

An Indian study shows that these conditions can lead to a three-fold increased risk of renal dysfunction in heroin users compared to non-drug users, underscoring the severe impact of heroin on kidney health.

The compassionate medical team at Ardu Recovery Center creates personalized plans to heal damaged organs through nutritional therapy, medications if necessary, and holistic treatment activities to support your recovery. 

Contact our experts to start on the road to health and sobriety.

What does heroin do to the bones and muscles?

Chronic heroin use can lead to altered bone metabolism and reduced bone mass. People struggling with heroin addiction often show common symptoms of conditions such as osteopenia, a condition characterized by low bone density. Márquez-Grant, et. al. explain that this is partly due to the hypogonadism often seen in chronic heroin users, which can accelerate bone turnover.  

The researchers also found that long-term heroin use is linked to septic arthritis and osteomyelitis, both of which can cause significant bone damage.

As for the muscles, heroin abuse weakens and stiffens the muscles, eventually causing a loss of muscle function. Remember how heroin abuse can impair renal function and cause rhabdomyolysis? Italian researchers discovered that this serious syndrome is caused by the death of muscle fibers and the release of their contents into the bloodstream. 

Can heroin abuse hinder reproduction?

Heroin abuse can indeed hinder reproduction, affecting both male and female fertility. For men, heroin can:

  1. Impair semen quality, including sperm motility and viability
  2. Cause abnormalities in sperm histone replacement, which are critical for sperm maturity
  3. Reduce sexual desire
  4. Cause erectile dysfunction
  5. Increase infertility by lowering testosterone levels and causing opioid-induced androgen deficiency (OPIAD)

Iranian researchers explain how by negatively impacting sperm, heroin contributes as a potential cause of otherwise unexplained male infertility issues in frequent long-term users.

In women, heroin abuse is associated with:

  1. Disruption of female reproductive hormones and ovulation
  2. Decreased chances of pregnancy
  3. Serious complications in women who use heroin during pregnancy such as:
    1. An increased risk of premature birth
    2. Low birth weight
    3. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)
    4. Stillbirth 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that “NAS occurs when heroin passes through the placenta to the fetus during pregnancy, causing the baby to become dependent, along with the mother.”

Our drug rehab for women aims to tackle gender-specific behaviors related to drug abuse, whether it’s heroin, methamphetamine, addiction to prescription medication, or other types. Women-only programs provide a safe environment where we tackle issues such as trauma, stigma, and motherhood that influence problematic substance use.

Similarly, Ardu offers both rehab services for men and a men’s drug detox program where we create a supportive environment to address the unique pressures and addictive behaviors afflicting men during recovery.

How does heroin impact mental health?

Heroin abuse not only triggers and exacerbates a range of mental health disorders, it also creates a vicious cycle of emotional distress and cognitive impairment, making recovery more difficult. 

Many people who struggle with heroin addiction also have co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). NIDA explains that “over 60 percent of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.”

Here’s how regular heroin use impacts mental health:

  • Heroin alters brain chemistry and neural pathways to contribute to or exacerbate mental health issues. It disrupts brain regions and neurotransmitters that regulate cognition, behavior, and emotion. According to Gould, Ph.D., changes to these communication pathways undermine functioning in ways that exacerbate existing illnesses or trigger new ones. 
  • The cycle of addiction itself can worsen mental health problems. While heroin may temporarily blunt difficult emotions, prolonged use tends to worsen psychological distress. Users start to rely on heroin to alleviate guilt or pain associated with their substance abuse, which often amplifies underlying mental health issues.

Gould, Ph.D. also suggests that “patients with mental illness are at high risk for substance abuse.” Those already battling mental health conditions often turn to the fleeting relief of heroin to self-medicate. They have impaired impulse control or judgment and may lack the inhibition to avoid experimenting with opioids despite the risks. 

This combination of substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders is known as a dual diagnosis. Our devoted team is trained in integrated care to treat substance disorders and mental health conditions such as depression or PTSD with personalized therapies.

Those battling substance use and co-occurring mental disorders often tend to trade one addiction for another, sabotaging their progress through cross-addiction. At Ardu, we identify these patterns early by targeting the underlying traumatic roots and offering skill-building activities to cultivate new coping outlets for stress.

What are the secondary health effects of heroin abuse?

The secondary health effects of heroin abuse refer to indirect health consequences and medical complications that result from the risky behaviors, mental distress, and social issues accompanying addiction. 

The secondary health effects of heroin abuse include:

  • Sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal issues like constipation
  • Lung complications such as pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • Immune reactions that cause arthritis or other rheumatologic problems
  • Heightened susceptibility to contracting infectious diseases including HIV and Hepatitis B and C through careless intravenous use
  • Poor dental health and vision deterioration due to overall neglect of health
  • Malnutrition
  • Decreased intellectual performance and memory loss
  • Increased risk of mental illnesses (e.g. clinical depression) caused by chemical and structural brain changes
  • High comorbidity with anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions
  • Increased risk of overdose, accidents, suicide, or suicidal ideation
  • Reduced quality of life across occupational, social, and economic domains

Start your journey to sobriety by breaking free of heroin’s hold. Our caring team at the Utah rehab center will support you through detox and provide comprehensive inpatient medical care, tailored counseling addressing root causes, nutritional education, and a peaceful recovery environment.

I went to Ardu only for detox (my first treatment ever) they made it incredibly comfortable for me. The nurses were awesome! They made it so comfortable for me going through something I felt very nervous about with it being my first time. Staff was welcoming to me to join groups but not pushy as I was detoxing. 

David Cline


Get the right help for heroin addiction

Our heroin addiction treatment can pave the road to long-term recovery from heroin addiction. At our heroin rehab center, we provide compassionate care to help you reclaim your health and purpose. 

Our residential treatment provides round-the-clock structured support and intensive therapy daily. With constant medical care, structured days centered on your health, and new friends overcoming the same obstacles by your side, our intensive inpatient program builds momentum toward sobriety. 

On the other hand, outpatient treatment tackles addiction with sessions that work around your life. Lower costs and flexibility allow for a recovery journey that can coexist with jobs, caregiving, or other responsibilities. Outpatient rehab works well for those with mild to moderate addictions who want help while preserving their routine. 

We also offer intensive outpatient programs and partial hospitalization programs and work with you to find one that works best for you.

We use a wide range of therapies to understand and treat addiction’s underlying causes. Some of them are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps identify negative thought and behavior patterns that contribute to substance abuse. 
  • Dialectical behavior therapy teaches distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal skills to change addictive behaviors. 
  • Experiential therapies involve art therapy, music, or adventure therapy. They help you express emotions and build self-confidence through creative activities.

Before discharging you from our program, we develop a comprehensive aftercare plan outlining your next steps when you transition home. We are invested in your success for the long haul. Our aftercare services ensure you have all the resources and support needed to continue thriving in your recovery journey.

To enroll in an Ardu heroin treatment program, contact Ardu Recovery Center online or via phone (801-810-1234). We will work with you to find a recovery path that works for you during the detox process and beyond. 

Heroin addiction FAQ

What are some of the behavioral symptoms of heroin addiction?

Behavioral red flags of heroin addiction include:

  • Cravings and preoccupation with obtaining more heroin
  • Changes in social groups towards other users
  • Declining performance at work or school
  • Secrecy about activities and possessions like drug paraphernalia
  • Escalating legal or financial problems stemming from uncontrolled heroin use despite the extreme adverse effects

What medical conditions can result from heroin use disorder?

Some of the medical conditions tied to ongoing heroin abuse are:

  1. Heart infections such as endocarditis
  2. Liver disease from processing toxins
  3. Vascular issues including blood clots or collapse
  4. Kidney infections and disease
  5. Pneumonia and other lung problems
  6. Mental illnesses 
  7. Suicidal thoughts
  8. Early risk of death by overdose

What substances does heroin interact dangerously with?

Heroin interacts dangerously with other central nervous system depressants such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and some sleep medications. Together, these substances compound respiratory depression, leading to coma or fatal overdose. Concurrent stimulant use stresses the cardiovascular system further increasing strain on the heart. Needle sharing spreads infectious diseases rapidly, so intravenous heroin use alongside injection drugs like meth brings added risks.

What are some signs of a heroin overdose?

Some of the telltale signs of a heroin overdose include:

  • Extremely pale, cold skin
  • Very slow shallow breathing or choking
  • A limp body
  • Unusually constricted pinpoint pupils
  • Bluish skin, nails, feet, or fingertips that indicate oxygen loss
  • Confusion
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Abnormally low blood pressure
  • Oversedation that precedes coma or death

What medications help treat heroin addiction?

FDA-approved medications for opioid addiction and withdrawal management include the opioid agonists methadone and buprenorphine, which activate receptors, easing cravings and symptoms, and blocking other opioids. Naltrexone is an antagonist that blocks any opioid effect. Clonidine, an alpha agonist, reduces some withdrawal side effects. Medications can be coupled with individual or group therapy for whole health recovery.

What are some risk factors that could lead to heroin addiction?

Major risk factors for heroin addiction include:

  • Early traumatic exposures
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Concurrent untreated mental illness
  • Initial prescription opioid misuse
  • Certain genetic variants affecting impulse control
  • History of conduct disorder
  • Poor academic and occupational performance
  • Unemployment
  • Financial insecurity
  • Social environmental factors

What happens to the brain and body during heroin withdrawal?

Heroin withdrawal sparks an intense multisystem reaction as suppressed processes such as digestion and blood pressure regain function. This is coupled with brain chemical imbalances triggering psychological and physical symptoms like bone pain, nausea, anxiety, and intense cravings. 

Withdrawal may provoke self-harm without support. Buprenorphine manages symptoms by safely occupying opioid receptors, while medical supervision provides fluids, medications, and nutrition, and monitors potentially life-threatening complications.

Why do many people struggle with relapse after quitting heroin?

Even after overcoming painful acute withdrawal during detox, protracted symptoms like cravings, concentration lapses, low motivation, or mood may persist for weeks or months as the brain gradually rebalances. Without aftercare support, these residual symptoms coupled with memories and environmental triggers elevate relapse risk. Psychotherapy and peer communities foster new coping strategies and lifestyle changes needed for longevity in recovery by rewarding sobriety milestones and managing related health conditions.

What is heroin?

Heroin is an illegal, highly addictive opioid drug synthesized from morphine, which comes from the opium poppy plant. It can be a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. When injected, snorted, or inhaled, heroin quickly binds to the brain’s opioid receptors, giving that euphoric, sedative, and extremely addictive high. 

Addiction can develop quickly but often after a stretch of regular use. Because of heroin’s intense habit-forming nature, it is considered one of the most dangerous and deadliest drugs out there.


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