What Are the Long-Term Health Effects of Heroin Use?

Heroin has played a major role in the current opioid overdose epidemic. The number of heroin users in the U.S. use nearly doubled from 2002 to 2018,1 and in 2019, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that an estimated 5.7 million Americans had used the drug at some point in their lives.2 Regular use of heroin may lead not only to lethal overdose but to long-term health effects such as skin and blood infections, organ damage, sexual dysfunction, and other serious issues. It may also lead to a heroin use disorder commonly referred to as heroin addiction.3,4

This article will detail the long-term effects of heroin use and guide you through the process of seeking professional addiction treatment if you are struggling and trying to quit using heroin.

Long-Term Effects & Risks of Heroin

If you have a severe heroin addiction, it may be visibly obvious to others that your health has declined. If you haven’t been using long, the effects may not be as easy to see on the surface but may still pose great risks to your health.4

Chronic heroin use can put you at risk of the following:4,5,6,7

  • Insomnia.
  • Constipation.
  • Stomach pain/cramping.
  • Liver and kidney disease.
  • Lung problems, e.g., pneumonia or tuberculosis.
  • Problems with sexual desire and performance (in men).
  • Irregular menses (in women).
  • Mental health disorders.
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Difficulty managing stress.
  • Unhealthy impulse control.
  • Increased risk of contracting blood infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV when injecting heroin.
  • Soft-tissue infections such as painful pus-filled wounds (from injecting).
  • Life-threatening infections of the blood vessels and heart valves (from injecting).
  • Track marks (from injecting).
  • Collapsed veins (from injecting).
  • Clogged blood vessels due to impure additive particles in heroin (from injecting).
  • Holes in the nasal septum or other forms of nasal tissue damage (from snorting heroin).
  • New or worsened asthma symptoms (from smoking heroin).
  • Brain damage, coma, or death due to overdose (see more below).

Addicted woman on ground

Heroin Overdose

An overdose happens when you take more heroin than your body can handle, and it produces a life-threatening reaction.4

A heroin overdose causes very slow and shallow breathing, leading to decreased oxygen delivery to your vital organs. This can be fatal. Those who survive may suffer brain damage from periods of inadequate oxygen to the brain.4

Heroin is an illegal drug produced in various ways with no official oversight. This means the quality, additives (e.g., ), and potency are unpredictable, and as a result, heroin users risk overdose each time they use.8,9

Symptoms of a heroin overdose include:10

  • Shallow, slow, or absent breathing.
  • Small pupils.
  • Blue, pale and cold skin.
  • Choking or gurgling.
  • Extreme sleepiness or loss of consciousness.
  • Loss of muscle tone.

If you are with someone experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above or if you are experiencing these symptoms yourself, call 911 immediately. If you have naloxone (the opioid overdose reversal drug), administer it right away and stay with the person until responders arrive. Position them in the recovery position on their side with their top arm and leg crossed over their body to prevent choking.10

Heroin Dependence and Addiction

Heroin use leads to tolerance, dependence, and addiction, all very different terms that are mistakenly used interchangeably.

If you use heroin regularly, your body will begin to become accustomed to it and will start to require more of the drug to achieve its desired effect.4 This is referred to as heroin tolerance.4

With repeated use and growing doses, your body will eventually become dependent on the drug. If you are dependent on heroin, you will experience withdrawal symptoms and strong drug cravings if you stop using it or decrease the amount you use.4,11

Heroin withdrawal symptoms tend to feel like very bad flu. While they only last about 3 to 5 days in most cases,12 they are uncomfortable enough that they, together with drug cravings, make it very hard to stop using heroin without professional help.4,13

Heroin addiction is characterized by a range of symptoms with one main defining factor: you continue to use the substance even after experiencing significant problems as a result of your drug use. For example, if you are addicted to heroin, you may experience health issues, fail to meet work responsibilities, have run-ins with the law, or have social problems at home or with friends and continue to use heroin despite it causing or worsening these issues.6

How to Get Help for a Heroin Addiction

Happy woman at group meeting

If you are suffering from heroin addiction, know that treatment is available, and recovery is attainable. As you think about your path to sobriety, you should understand the different types of care that are available and what the process could look like. AdCare offers various treatment programs, all of which are meant to be stepping stones to your path to long-term sobriety.

Settings for heroin addiction treatment typically include:

  • Detoxification. Before entering long-term treatment, you may first need to detox from heroin, in order to eliminate it from your body. Detoxification is often done as part of an inpatient rehabilitation program, although detox may also be performed on an outpatient basis. At AdCare, our detox program is inpatient, and we have medical staff to care for you 24/7 and help you manage any medical issues that might arise as you withdraw from heroin. The detox process usually lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 days.
  • Inpatient and/or outpatient rehab. After completing detox, you might enter a formal inpatient program or outpatient rehab. This depends entirely on your individual needs and circumstances. Our staff will take into account various factors, including how long you’ve abused heroin, the amount of heroin being used, any underlying mental health issues, and your home environment (e.g., family support, work/school, etc.). While inpatient treatment involves residing at the facility 24/7, outpatient rehab is more flexible in that you can attend treatment during the day and return home in the evening. You might also be able to continue working or going to school.

Regardless of whether you attend an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, you’ll attend individual and group therapy, learn more about the underlying reason(s) for your addiction, and participate in skill groups intended to help you develop a substance-free lifestyle.4,14

While in treatment, you might also be given medication to help you stop using heroin and minimize cravings. The use of medications in combination with behavioral therapy to support recovery from opioid addiction is called medication-assisted treatment, and it is an approach to treatment that is proven effective in helping people to enter and stay in recovery.15

How to Start Heroin Addiction Treatment

At AdCare, our admissions process is easy: we’ll go over your current situation, personal and medical history, insurance and payment options, and even discuss how you’ll get to the treatment center and make plans to help you get here.

Don’t let addiction take control of your life any longer. Call us today at to learn more about addiction treatment at AdCare. There are two inpatient AdCare facilities, one rehab center in Worcester, Massachusetts, and one rehab center in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. AdCare also offers outpatient treatment and has sister facilities across the United States as well. Call us today to learn more about our comprehensive addiction treatment options.

If you are ready to start treatment for your heroin addiction, we are available to speak to you 24/7 to discuss the details of our programs and how treatment can change your life.

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