What are the Physical Side-effects of Heroin Abuse?


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Heroin is an incredibly dangerous and highly addictive street drug. More than 100 years ago, it was legal for the treatment of acute pain and as an alternative to morphine. Unfortunately, the company who created heroin was not aware of its side effects of highly addictive properties until several years after it was manufactured and sold. Because so many people started to become addicted and died from taking the drug, heroin was banned in the 1920s. But the drug continued to be illegal produced and sold on the street.

There is a massive stigma associated with heroin use. Roughly 75% of people who take heroin did not start their drug addiction with it. Instead, three-fourths of people addicted to heroin became addicted to legal, prescription opioid drugs initially, such as Vicodin or OxyContin. People also rarely start out injecting the drug but will start by snorting or smoking the substance. Tolerance to the drug will quickly build, and users will need to take more and more of the substance to get the same, intense effects and to prevent withdrawal symptoms from occurring. At this point in the drug addiction process, users will start to inject the drug to get a more powerful, longer-lasting high. 

The physical and mental side effects of heroin use are deleterious. Sharing dirty needles can lead to lifelong, bloodborne infections. In areas where heroin addiction is rampant, there are increased incidences of HIV infections. Also, heroin and other opioid drugs are associated with the highest number of fatal overdose rates in the country. For loved ones, it’s imperative that they recognize the signs of addiction in a loved one. Even though heroin is incredibly addictive, heroin addiction is a treatable condition

What are the signs of heroin use?

The signs of heroin abuse and addiction are similar to those often found in addictions to other substances. For example, the addiction will take center stage in a person’s life. They will become secretive, and isolate themselves. Addicts will often miss work or school because they are too high or drunk to attend, and constantly thinking about how to obtain drugs, get high, or recover from drugs leaves room for little else in a person’s life. For heroin addiction, some telltale signs are particular to this type of substance.

  • Glassy-eyed appearance
  • Small pupils
  • Flushed skin
  • Drowsiness
  • Track marks from injecting the drug
  • Cloudy thinking
  • Slurred speech
  • Stumbling 
  • Itchiness
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate
  • Appearing or acting high
  • Stomach upset and constipation

Since heroin is a street drug, manufacturers sometimes don’t know what’s in the mixture, and will often mix the drug with other chemicals. These “bad batches” can have atypical effects on users. Some of the atypical impacts of heroin use include:

  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Headaches 
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath

Can heroin use be mistaken for something else?

Heroin comes in a powder form, and the color of the drug can vary. Most heroin is brown or tan in appearance, but some types of heroin can be white. In some cases, heroin can be mistaken for cocaine and vice versa. In these instances, users can accidentally overdose on heroin they thought was cocaine or cocaine that turned out to be heroin. 

Because heroin can give some slurred speech, a flushed appearance, and make them uncoordinated, loved ones may mistake heroin use for drinking. This may cause loved ones to overlook a friend or family members heroin use when they think it’s “just alcohol.” But, alcohol use will not leave a user with small, or pinprick pupils, which is usually the biggest indicator that what a person has taken is heroin, not alcohol. The physical effects of heroin are almost identical to the side effects present with other opioid derivative drugs. 

What are the long-term effects of heroin use?

Unfortunately, heroin use comes with a high risk of overdose and death. Users can take a dose of heroin that is mixed with other chemicals and substances, increased the chances of fatal overdose and organ damage. Illegal manufacturers will sometimes put chemicals in heroin that do not dissolve as well as the pure drug, as a way to pad their profits and get people hooked more easily. These chemicals can clog arteries, and blood vessels, which can kill off vital organ cells and cause long-term damage, or even lead to organ failure. Injecting heroin is also associated with an increased risk of bloodborne illnesses, such as HIV, and hepatitis B and C.

Injecting heroin can also cause skin infections and collapsed lungs. Using the drug is also associated with an increase in respiratory infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis. Heroin use is also associated with infections of the heart valves, fertility problems, and sexual dysfunction. 

Even if a person does not inject heroin, snorting or smoking the drug will cause physical problems, too. Snorting heroin will wear down the nasal passages, leading to chronic sinus infections, and perforated septums in extreme cases. A perforated septum can cause permanent disfigurement, and can only be fixed with expensive and invasive surgery. Smoking heroin will lead to permanent lung damage and scarring as well. 

What should someone do if they suspect a loved one is using heroin?

It is imperative that a person who uses heroin gets help immediately for the addiction. Heroin use will cause permanent, lifelong damage if it is not stopped quickly. Although it is a highly addictive substance, it is possible to achieve and maintain sobriety with detox, rehab, and aftercare programs.

For loved ones, it is important to educate themselves on the physical and mental processes involved in the disease of drug addiction. Speaking to an experienced drug addiction counselor on how to communicate with an addicted loved one can also give someone the tools they need to talk to a loved one about getting help. Even if a loved one is not ready to go to treatment, attending addiction counseling as the friend or family member of an addicted person can offer some relief and support for this challenging situation. 

Are you concerned about a family member or friend’s drug use? The counselors at Windward Way have helped hundreds of concerned family members find encouragement and support for these situations. Please contact Windward Way today to learn more about addiction counseling and rehabilitation.