Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction is a serious medical disease. Repeated use of heroin or other opioids changes the way the brain operates. These changes cause cravings, impaired reasoning and withdrawal symptoms. Rehab that includes residential care, opioid medications, counseling and a variety of support systems is usually necessary for recovery from heroin addiction.

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Heroin is usually the last opioid that a person becomes addicted to. Many people are introduced to opioids through prescription drugs, such as Vicodin or Percocet. Once they switch to heroin, they almost never switch back.

Fast Facts: Heroin

Abuse Potential
Scientific Name
Drug Class
Street Names
Smack, Boy, Horse, Black Tar, Skag
Side Effects
Fatal Overdose, Collapsed Veins, Abscesses, Constipation, Gastrointestinal Cramping, Liver Disease, Kidney Disease
How It's Used
Swallowed, Injected, Smoked
Legal Status
Schedule I
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The cheap cost and easy availability of heroin make it more appealing than prescription opioids. People who are addicted to the drug have to use it daily to avoid withdrawal. The longer that they use heroin, the more addicted they’ll become.

When people develop a heroin addiction, the drug becomes the center of their lives. Things that they used to cherish lose importance. They often believe that they’ll be addicted forever, and they can’t see a way to escape. But heroin treatment can help people rebuild their lives.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illicit substance that belongs to a class of drugs called opioids. These drugs are sometimes referred to as narcotics. Heroin sold on the street can have several nicknames, including smack, dope and horse. The scientific name for heroin, which is derived from morphine, is diacetylmorphine. Morphine occurs naturally in opium, the sap inside the seed of the opium poppy plant.

People use heroin to get high because heroin affects parts of the brain that control pleasure and relaxation. The drug can also reduce coughing. Bayer actually marketed heroin as medication to treat cough in the early 1900s. That’s how the drug became popularly known as heroin. Today, drug trafficking organizations in multiple countries smuggle several different types of heroin into the United States.

“Narcotics stimulate reward systems in the brain for some people. Heroin relieves stress, and it’s a lot cheaper and easier to get [than prescription drugs].”

Dr. Glen Hanson, former interim director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug today because the Drug Enforcement Administration has determined that it has no acceptable medical use and a high potential of causing abuse and addiction. Heroin causes addiction by changing the way the reward and motivation pathways in the brain work.

Learn more about why heroin is addictive

woman with heroin needle

Why People Abuse Heroin

Like other opioids, heroin can relieve pain. But that’s not why most people use it. When it’s abused, heroin makes people feel peaceful, relaxed and drowsy. It can also cause short-term relief from stress, anxiety or depression.

Other opioids, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, can be abused to achieve the same effects. However, heroin costs less than prescription opioids. The same dose of a prescription drug may be three times as expensive as the cost of heroin on the street.

Dr. Kevin Wandler, Chief Medical Officer of Advanced Recovery Systems, discusses why prescription opioids are addictive and how the opioid epidemic started. He explains why some people switch to heroin and the risks of using heroin that’s laced with fentanyl or carfentanil.

Many people abuse heroin because it is easier to abuse than other opioids. Legitimate medications require a doctor’s prescription, and many prescription drugs have chemical formulas that make them difficult to crush or melt.

People who are addicted to heroin may take the drug to prevent withdrawal rather than to get high. Heroin is more widely available today than in recent decades, according to the DEA’s 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.

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How Do People Abuse Heroin?

People who use heroin want to want to get their money’s worth. If they swallow the drug, some of the heroin will be metabolized and leave the body before it reaches the brain. They won’t feel the full dose. People often take heroin in more dangerous ways so a larger dose of the drug reaches the brain.

Ways that people use heroin include:

  • Smoking (chasing the dragon)
  • Snorting (insufflation)
  • Injecting (shooting or slamming)

Snorting heroin delivers a large portion of the drug to the brain. It also gets the drug to the brain more quickly than if heroin was swallowed. Smoking heroin is one of the fastest ways to get the drug to the brain, according to the Genetic Science Learning Center.

Shooting heroin is the most dangerous way to consume the drug because the full dose of the drug makes it to the brain. Most people start by smoking or snorting heroin, and they don’t transition to IV use until they’ve been addicted for several months or years.

used heroin needle on the ground

Effects of Heroin Addiction and Abuse

Heroin’s side effects may be as well-known as its positive effects. The drug is notorious for its potential to cause addiction, its painful withdrawal symptoms and its ability to cause death by overdose.

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Signs of Heroin Abuse and Addiction

  • Physical signs include track marks, nosebleeds and weight loss
  • Behavioral signs include mood swings, dishonesty and criminal activity
  • Paraphernalia include spoons, syringes and foil

Learn more about signs and symptoms of heroin use

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Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Caused by regular heroin use over time
  • Symptoms include muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea
  • Can be treated with maintenance medications

Learn more about withdrawal from heroin

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Heroin Overdose

  • Caused by consuming too much heroin in a short period of time
  • Symptoms include unconsciousness, shallow breathing and weak pulse
  • Can be treated with naloxone and rescue breathing

Learn more about heroin overdoses

Heroin overdoses require a different type of treatment than treatment for withdrawal or addiction. Heroin hotlines can help you find appropriate treatment options near you.

group of people discussing their addictions

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction is caused by physical, mental and environmental factors. Overcoming withdrawal does little to treat the mental and environmental factors. That’s why most people require professional treatment to quit using heroin and maintain recovery.

“Heroin causes such profound brain changes that the people caught up in this kind of madness are powerless and cannot help themselves. At this point it has become a real brain disease called addiction, and they need immediate treatment before it is too late.”

Dr. Tim Huckaby, medical director of the Orlando Recovery Center

Heroin Detox

Heroin detox is one of the first steps toward recovery from addiction. This phase of treatment helps individuals overcome withdrawal symptoms in a safe environment.

Heroin Rehab

Comprehensive rehab for addiction includes detox, medication, therapy, support groups and aftercare planning. Long-term residential care provides the best foundation for recovery.

Heroin addiction is a life-changing disease. It causes changes in the brain that require medical treatment. With treatment and support, thousands of people recover from heroin addiction each year.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Featured Expert
Timothy Huckaby
Medical Director, Orlando Recovery Center

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