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Side Effects of Heroin: What It Does to the Brain and Body

heroin side effects

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Illegal opiates are highly addictive drugs that are classified as schedule I substances. Chemically, heroin structure is similar to morphine. The drug binds to opioid receptors in the brain and produces a characteristic rush consisting of a surge in pleasurable feelings and relaxation. People who abuse this drug crave these physical effects of heroin. However, there are several unwanted symptoms that can range in severity from mild to fatal.
What does heroin do to the body? What does heroin feel like? Which factors determine the severity of side effects? Read on to find out more about the psychological and physical changes that users experience and their appropriate management.

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Table of Contents

Short Term Effects of Heroin

What are the side effects of heroin? This substance is an opioid with a high potential for abuse. Addicts use it for the pleasurable sensations it produces.
wooman feeling sick and drowsy
However, heroin drug can cause several unwanted side effects in the short-term, including:

  • Warmth or flushing of the skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy extremities
  • Analgesia (reduced pain sensation)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Uncontrollable heroin itch
  • Drowsiness or sedation
  • Lethargy
  • Mental clouding or confusion
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Slowed breathing
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Constricted pupils
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips, hands, and feet
Side effects can occur whether someone is a first-time user or a full-blown addict. What happens when one overdose on heroin? One of the most dangerous complications of opiate abuse is a potentially life-threatening respiratory depression. An overdose can lead to coma, permanent brain damage, and heroin death.

Long Term Effects of Heroin

In addition to immediate side effects, there are a number of complications, both physical and mental, caused by prolonged use. Heroin long term effects include tolerance (requiring more of the drug to achieve the same effect) and physical dependence (developing uncomfortable side effects if use is abruptly reduced or stopped).

Long-Term Physical Complications

  • Damaged teeth and swollen gums
  • Heroin constipation
  • Cold sweats
  • Excoriation and skin infections from scratching
  • Infections due to weak immune system
  • Heart, lung, kidney, and liver diseases
  • Arthritis and rheumatologic problems
  • Malnourishment, weakness, and weight loss due to loss of appetite
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Menstrual disturbance
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Risk of heroin withdrawal death from quitting cold turkey

Long-Term Mental Effects of Heroin

  • Poor decision-making ability
  • Difficulty in behavior regulation
  • Altered response to stress

In addition, the use of illegal opiates by a pregnant woman can result in side effects such as premature birth, low birth weight, impaired development, and the birth of a heroin baby who is addicted to opioids from birth.

What Does Heroin Do to the Brain?

In terms of mechanism of action, heroin is an opiate that attaches to receptors in the brain and produces a rush of intense euphoria. Another heroin effect on the brain is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This is the high that addicts crave. The intensity of the rush and the development of side effects depends on how quickly the drug enters the brain. For example, injecting heroin produces an almost instant high and is associated with a number of side effects.
This drug is a central nervous system depressant that slows down functioning of the body. It causes neuronal and hormonal imbalances and deterioration of white matter in the brain. Heroin seizures are not common but may occur if the substance is taken in combination with alcohol or other drugs, for example, heroin and weed.
Check out this video from CNN on how does brain react to heroin:

Factors Affecting Emergence of Side Effects

The intensity of the physical psychological effects of heroin depends on a number of factors. Here are some of the variables that can affect the occurrence and severity of complications:

  • Amount used
  • Duration of use
  • Purity of the illicit substance
  • Method of administration (smoking, snorting, injecting)
  • Adulterants used to cut the drug
  • Contaminants introduced during manufacturing
  • Mixing with other drugs or alcohol
  • Individual tolerance

Reducing the Risks of Heroin

Can addicts take any special precautions to prevent side effects or reduce heroin effects on the body? Here are some tips:

  • Use a pure form of the drug (white powder with a bitter taste). Adulterants and contaminants increase the risk of side effects.
  • Avoid injecting the drug. This method introduces the drug directly into the bloodstream, from where it rapidly crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds with opioid receptors in the brain. Injecting also increases the risk of contracting serious illness.
  • Do not mix it with other drugs or alcohol.
  • Maintain good nutrition and hydration.
Stopping taking the drug under the supervision of the doctors is the most effective way to reduce harm from heroin and avoid all the negative consequences of heroin abuse.

Getting Treatment for Heroin Side Effects

Illegal opioid abuse and addiction is a serious medical condition that requires care from experts in chemical dependency and heroin treatment. It is not advisable to attempt detoxification at home without medical supervision. Because of how heroin affects the brain and body, sudden cessation or reduction in drug use can prove dangerous. It is important to seek professional help to cope with withdrawal symptoms. Effective substance abuse treatment planning includes a combination of medication-assisted detoxification and behavioral therapy. Addiction is not the end of the road. The important thing is to get help at a reputed rehab for drug addictions.

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  1. Cheng G. L., Zeng H., Leung M. K., et al. Heroin abuse accelerates biological aging: a novel insight from telomerase and brain imaging interaction. Transl Psychiatry. 2013; 3(5): e260. doi:10.1038/tp.2013.36.
  2. Effects of Diacetylmorphine (DAM) on Brain Function and Stress Response. The US National Library of Medicine. 2015.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use? 2018.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the long-term effects of heroin use? 2018.
Medically Reviewed By Michael Espelin APRN
Olivier George

About Author

Olivier George, Ph.D.

Olivier George is a medical writer and head manager of the rehab center in California. He spends a lot of time in collecting and analyzing the traditional approaches for substance abuse treatment and assessing their efficiency.


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