Heroin Abuse Causes, Statistics, Addiction Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

What is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive and illegal drug that is derived from morphine or the opium poppy. Originally created in 1974, heroin was used medicinally until the addictive potential of this drug was acknowledged.

It currently has no approved medical use in the United States. Heroin functions as a depressant or “downer” in that it inhibits the brain’s ability to distinguish pain and alters the brain’s pleasure systems. There are several street names or slang terms for Heroin, including “junk,” “H,” “black tar,” “smack,” and “skag.”

Typically, heroin is sold as a white or brownish powder and is usually “cut” with other drugs or ingredients that include starch, sugar, powdered milk, quinine, or other poisons. Heroin can be used in a range of ways, depending on the preference of the user and the purity of the drug, though is usually smoked, injected, sniffed or snorted. The abuse of Heroin, both short and long-term, can result in devastating physical, mental, and emotional consequence in heroin addiction.

Heroin Addiction Statistics

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), teenagers have reasonably easy access to heroin. Also, from the NSDUH information, among recent first-time heroin users, ages 12 to 49, the average age was 20.7. This may reveal that many heroin users begin using the drug in early adulthood [1]. Other heroin statistics include the following:

  • Current studies suggest that an estimated 600,000 people need treatment for a heroin addiction [2].
  • Of approximately 1.2 million “sometime” heroin users in the US, about 208,000 use it habitually [2].
  • The heroin addict spends an estimated $150 to $200 a day to maintain a heroin addiction [2].
  • According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), almost one million visits to the emergency department in 2009 were the result of illicit drug abuse. Over 200,000 of these visits were the direct result of heroin abuse [3].

Causes of Heroin Addiction

Addiction to heroin can be caused by a variety of factors. Major underlying causes of heroin abuse are related to biological, psychological, and social/environmental factors. Biological factors that can attribute to heroin addiction include genetic influences as well as variances in brain mechanisms and body chemistry linked to drug abuse.

Psychological factors connected with heroin addiction are underlying traumas, cases of abuse, feelings of depression, anxiety, etc. Heroin may be used in an attempt to escape from uncomfortable feelings, pain, or realities of living.

Social/environmental factors that can contribute to drug addictions include family substance use, availability and acceptability of drugs within the community, and pressure from peer groups. Circumstances such as poverty, poor housing, and homelessness are other examples of social/environmental factors that can be linked to heroin addiction.

Heroin addiction can also be co-occurring with abuse of other substances, alcohol, and even eating disorders. The addiction nature is influenced by several factors, and it is likely that heroin abusers may struggle with another form of addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use, Addiction, and Dependence

Men and women who are using heroin may display the following signs and symptoms:

  • Personal grooming neglect
  • Red or glassy eyes
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Withdrawal from social activities, friends and family
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Altered sleeping patterns
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Decreased sensitivity to pain

Individuals who are addicted to heroin may exhibit the following signs and symptoms:

  • Lack of coordination, incoherent speech
  • Lack of motivation towards any future goals
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Disorientation
  • Unexplained changes in behaviors and actions
  • Possession of needles or small bags containing white powdery residue
  • Deceptive or manipulative behavior
  • Constantly asking for or stealing money

Lastly, the following signs and symptoms can occur with dependency on heroin:

  • Cardiovascular complications, such as infection
  • Pulmonary diseases, such as pneumonia
  • Liver disease
  • Bacterial infections
  • Neurological impairments, Seizures
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
  • Decreased sensitivity to pain

Heroin Effects

Addiction to heroin can cause numerable short and long term consequences on the user. These consequences can impact a man or woman physically, psychologically/mentally, and socially. The following are ways that heroin can impact the various facets of a user’s life:

Physical Effects – The use of the drug heroin can physically compromise the normal behaviors and mechanisms of the body by interfering with the various systems. Here are some negative physical consequences resulting from using the drug Heroin:

  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Infection from injecting with needles
  • Compromised mental function
  • Respiratory failure
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Death due to accidental overdose

Psychological / Mental Effects – Using heroin can also have negative impacts on mental health. Here are some negative psychological and mental effects from using Heroin:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Confusion, disorientation
  • Paranoia
  • Altered perception of reality
  • Personality shifts
  • Low self-esteem, negative body image
  • Feelings of anger, rage

Social Effects – The use of Heroin can result in multiple negative social effects. These can include the following:

  • Withdrawal, isolation from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Damaged relationships with loved ones
  • Division or brokenness within a family unit

Heroin Withdrawal

When a man or woman becomes dependent on a drug, such as Heroin, a physiological withdrawal state will occur when the drug use is stopped or reduce. Physical withdrawal symptoms can last from 48-72 hours or as long as 30-60 days.

This is dependent on the quantity, frequency, type, and extent of time heroin may have been used. During the state of withdrawal from heroin, the body is attempting to recuperate from the interference of the drug within its systems and the dysfunction the drug may have caused.

Withdrawal from Heroin may cause the following symptoms:

  • Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Chills
  • Excessive sweating
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Anxiety/Panic Attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Paranoia

For anyone who has become dependent on Heroin and is attempting to withdraw from the drug, there is a potential risk of relapsing. A relapse means returning to the use of Heroin after a phase of abstinence from the drug.

This can be a common occurrence for men and women who are making an effort to stay clean for the first time. Heroin relapse can be caused by several issues that can be successfully treated. Having the support of a rehabilitation center and treatment team can create long term success for recovery and relapse prevention.

Heroin Treatment and Help

Heroin addiction is a debilitating habit that can result in a number of negative consequences. If you or a loved one is struggling with a heroin addiction, the first step towards overcoming this is by identifying the problem.

Obtaining professional help is crucial to dealing with the complications that may have resulted from heroin use. Heroin addiction can be overwhelming and devastating to deal with, but fortunately, you do not have to be alone. Having the help of a professional treatment team in an accredited heroin rehab center can allow for the best care, and ultimately, give you the tools you need to overcome this addiction.


[1]: http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin-abuse-addiction/what-scope-heroin-use-in-united-states

[2]: http://www.examiner.com/article/heroin-statistics

[3]: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (formerly the Office of Applied Studies). The DAWN Report: Highlights of the 2009 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) Findings on Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. Rockville, MD, December 28, 2010. Available at: http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k10/DAWN034/EDHighlights.htm.

Articles Related to Heroin Addiction

  • Former prescription drug addicts are switching to heroin at an alarming rate. This is due to a crackdown by law enforcement and the medical community that has reduced the availability of prescription drugs. Since prescription opioids such as Hydrocodone and Oxycontin are harder to acquire and therefore more expensive, those addicted to prescription drugs are switching to heroin because the effects are similar and heroin is so much cheaper.
  • Heroin is viewed by many as being one of the most addictive and destructive substances currently used throughout the world. Derived from the prescription pain medication, morphine, the use of heroin depresses a person’s central nervous system, inducing feelings of pleasure and euphoria, while also prohibiting the brain from being able to recognize pain.
  • With an increase of reported deaths and cases related to narcotics, there seems to be a paradigm in the rising numbers of heroin incidents. Many researchers and experts have concluded that the real gateway drug at large is not marijuana, but actually prescription drugs.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 1, 2014
Published on AddictionHope.com, Online Information About Addiction & Abuse

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