Even though we see a downward trend for past-year heroin use in the 12-and-over population, the number of individuals who disclosed heroin use in the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use Health exceeded the number reported almost two decades earlier by 84%.1 People begin using heroin for a variety of reasons. Some may feel pressure to fit in with a particular social group, while others might be curious to try it because they’ve heard it can produce euphoric feelings. Then, some switch to heroin after they develop a tolerance to pharmacological opioids and cannot refill their prescriptions. No matter why they start using the drug, it’s challenging to stop, and both the short-term and long-term effects of heroin use carry significant medical risks.
Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use
Our bodies are capable of regulating pain and feelings of well-being when naturally occurring chemicals called neurotransmitters bind to and activate opioid receptors in the brain’s reward center. Heroin mimics these neurotransmitters. When it enters the bloodstream, and the activation occurs, individuals generally feel a surge of pleasurable feelings.2
How much heroin is used and the particular method of taking it (injection, smoking, or snorting) will determine how quickly the substance is delivered to the brain and the intensity of the effects.2 But pleasurable feelings are only one of the possible short-term effects of heroin. Upon taking the drug, people may also experience:
- Flushed skin or a sense of warmth
- Dry mouth
- Watery eyes and reduced pupil size
- Runny nose
- Feelings of heaviness in limbs
- Nausea or vomiting
- Intense itching
Eventually, the person will feel relaxed and very tired. Their cognitive functioning might decline or seem cloudy, breathing and heart rate slow, and they may enter a trance-like state that can last for several hours.3 Learn how to identify the signs of heroin addiction in someone you’re close to.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin
The longer someone uses heroin, the more likely they will develop a tolerance to it and become physically dependent on the substance. Individuals will need to increase their dosage to get the same effect, and if they stop using the drug, they’ll experience withdrawal symptoms within a few hours.4 Other long-term impacts of heroin use include:
- Heart lining and valve infections
- Collapsed veins (from injecting)
- Damaged nasal tissue (from snorting)
- Stomach cramps and constipation
- Male sexual dysfunction
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Mental disorders
- Risk of contracting infectious diseases due to needle-sharing
- Organ damage due to blood vessel clogs because heroin often contains substances like powdered milk, sugar, or starch
Eventually, the effects of long-term heroin use may lead an individual to develop an opioid use disorder.
How to Break Free From a Dependence on Heroin
When long-term heroin use leads to addiction, treatment generally includes both pharmacological and behavioral interventions. Used in combination, individuals can rebuild their lives.
Medical Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder
Deciding to quit using heroin after having used it for an extended period can bring about symptoms so severe that the individual may be at risk for relapsing unless medications are used to alleviate the symptoms and ease cravings for the drug. These medications work by activating opioid receptors in ways that are similar to how heroin activates the receptors. However, they do so in a safe way to aid in recovering from the substance.5
Behavioral Therapy Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder
While medications serve to stop the physical cravings for heroin, individuals who wish to eliminate their dependence on the drug must learn how to change their thought processes and behavior surrounding the use of illicit substances. Behavior therapies teach people how to change their attitudes toward drug use and develop the skills necessary to handle challenges that may have led them to view drugs as a coping mechanism.
One behavioral treatment known as contingency management uses a voucher system to reward individuals for negative drug tests, and the rewards are associated with items that support healthy living. Studies support the effectiveness of incentive-based programs for those with opioid use disorders. They reinforce positive behavior and help individuals change patterns that previously led to destructive outcomes.6
A Residential Inpatient Program Can Help You Overcome Your Dependence on Heroin
Once you start using heroin, it can very quickly take over your life. However, when individuals have the opportunity to enter a structured program that helps them safely detox and learn how to cope without the drug, they can build a life free from substance use.
The staff at Ocean Hills Recovery has the knowledge and expertise to teach you the skills you need to manage without drugs. We tailor our programs for each of our patients and provide an environment where you’ll feel safe and supported. Please schedule a consultation with us to discover how you can restart your life and begin to feel hopeful again.
About the author:
Greg opened his home and heart to alcoholics and addicts in 2003. He is a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATCI). Starting in 2009 Greg has fostered the growth of Ocean Hills Recovery into one of the most respected and effective treatment centers in the area and has been working with people with addictions since March of 2001. Greg believes in a holistic approach to recovery. His focus is on drug alcohol addiction treatment with a combination of 12 Step work, therapy and counseling, and the rejuvenation of the body through healthful eating and exercise. He has designed his program to foster a family-like atmosphere and believes that people in recovery are just beginning their lives. He encourages the people he works with to learn to enjoy life in sobriety. Greg is married to Nicole; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.