Heroin Effects: What It Does to the Brain and Body?

Last Updated: January 26, 2021

Authored by Olivier George, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Illegal opiates are highly addictive drugs that are classified as a 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. These are the physical effects of heroin people who abuse this drug crave. However, several unwanted symptoms range in severity from mild to fatal.

What does heroin do to the body? 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.

Short Term Effects of Heroin

Heroin drug can cause several dangerous side effects even during short-term use, 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 lips, hands, and feet

What happens when one overdoses 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. They happen commonly among users, and they even became a problem on a national level.

Sick guy is vomiting because of heroin.

Long Term Effects of Heroin

In addition to immediate side effects, there are several physical and mental complications caused by prolonged use. Heroin long term effects include tolerance (requiring more of this 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 the 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

What Does Heroin Do to the Brain?

In terms of mechanism of action, this drug is an opiate that attaches to receptors in the brain and produces a rush of intense euphoria. Another heroin effect on the brain is dopamine release, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This is the effect 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, injection produces an almost instant effect, but it is associated with several side effects.

This drug is a central nervous system depressant that slows down the functioning of the body. It causes neuronal and hormonal imbalances and deterioration of white matter in the brain.

Check out this video from CNN on how does the brain react to heroin:

Factors Affecting the Emergence of Side Effects

The intensity of both the physical and 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
  • The purity of the illicit substance
  • Method of administration (oral, nasal, or intravenous)
  • Adulterants used to cut the drug
  • Contaminants introduced during manufacturing
  • Mixing with other drugs or alcohol
  • Individual tolerance

Use of Heroin During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Any drug use during pregnancy is not safe at all, but in the United States, NIDA national research mentions about 5% of pregnant women use some illegal drugs. Unfortunately, the well-being and safety of a woman and her child can be compromised by addiction problems such as using heroin while pregnant.

pregnant woman snorting heroin

Notice that addiction can be dangerous to both the pregnant addict and her fetus. Generally, heroin effects on the body can be overwhelming. It affects how the brain and the central nervous system work. It can make its users feel sick to the stomach, sleepy, and itchy. Same risks and other serious problems are faced by women addicted to smack while pregnant.

Dangers Of Heroin Use In Pregnancy

When addicted parents use the substance during pregnancy, it enters the bloodstream and passes through the placenta to the baby’s bloodstream. It reaches the baby’s organs like the brain, heart, and others. Even though heroin-addicted babies’ long-term effects are still unclear, it has been shown to affect the baby’s heart rate and breathing movement in the womb.

Using Heroin While Pregnant can Result in Some Serious Problems Like:

  • Birth defects – During the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, a baby’s body and most internal organs are formed. Heroin birth defects are known to occur during this time. It can change the function or shape of the body.
  • Stillbirth – One of the heroin side effects on the baby is the fetus’s death in the womb after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Premature delivery – drug addiction in pregnancy can cause a woman to give birth too early (before 37 weeks of pregnancy).
  • Low birth weight – Children of addicts often have a low birth weight, which is less than 2500 g (5 pounds, 8 ounces).
  • Separation of the placenta from the uterus wall – It is a condition known as placental abruption. The condition can be deadly to pregnant women and the baby.
  • Other health problems in the child – Neonatal abstinence syndrome, development and behavioral problem, small head circumference, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

What If A Woman Used Heroin In Pregnancy

If smack abuse is stopped without proper guidance, a pregnant addicted mother may undergo intense symptoms of withdrawal. It can be dangerous to both the baby and the mother.

Psychologically, the common side effects of opioid withdrawal are depression, insomnia, anxiety, and drug craving, while physically, the side effects may be similar to flu.

Extra Monitoring During Pregnancy of an Addicted Mother

Around 20 weeks of pregnancy, most women will be offered a scan, which is one of the antenatal care routines. It helps to check the baby’s development and to identify birth defects. If a woman has used this drug during pregnancy, talking to the healthcare provider without wasting time is advisable. It would ensure proper and extra support or monitoring of the mother and baby.

Use of Heroin While Breastfeeding

Even though studies on the effects of drugs on breastfeeding are very few, it is believed opioid passes into the breast milk. How long does heroin stay in breast milk is a question that does not have a perfect answer yet. More research is needed as regards that. However, the drug in breast milk can make breathing difficult for the kids.

newborn crying.

Addicted Father and Risk To The Baby

Men who use this drug can find it difficult to get women pregnant because the drug affects sperm. In general, no research has specifically been done on whether the father’s drug use can affect the pregnancy period. More investigation on how medicine and drugs affect men during conception time is required. However, experts believe that some risks are present for a baby if a father uses smack.

Heroin Babies Born from Addicted Mothers

There is a high tendency that babies born to mothers who use opioids while pregnant are born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). A baby born addicted shows some symptoms of NAS after birth, during the first 1-3 days or a week after birth.  NAS symptoms include fever, excessive crying, vomiting, trouble breathing, insomnia, feeding difficulties, and even death, among many others.

Getting Treatment for Heroin Effects

Heroin abuse and addiction are serious medical conditions that require care from experts in chemical dependency and treatment It is not advisable to attempt detoxification at home without medical supervision. Because of how the drug affects the brain and body, sudden cessation or reduction in drug use can prove dangerous. It is important to contact a professional rehab center to cope with withdrawal symptoms.

Effective clinical substance abuse treatment planning includes a combination of medication-assisted detoxification and behavioral therapy. The good news is addiction is not the end of the road. The important thing is to get help at a reputed rehab for drug addictions.

There have been many success stories of heroin users before and after experiences. It is time that drug victims also got proper treatment to break the addiction cycle.

  • Psychological preparation. This helps in developing the willingness to stop drug abuse. In part, this heroin before and after psychological reset creates a physical and emotional dissatisfaction with the addictive lifestyle.
  • Teach them about withdrawal symptoms. This stage creates awareness on addicts behavior, information on the expected signs of withdrawal and how to handle them.
  • Medications and detox. The medication will help delay or reduce withdrawal symptoms experienced while undergoing detox treatment. Detox helps in getting rid of toxic substances from the body of the addict.
  • Choose between residential or outpatient treatment. In a residential treatment program, the client will live in a rehabilitation center for the entire duration of the treatment. The outpatient program, on the other hand, refers to the treatment done from home.

Page Sources

  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; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3669923/
  2. Effects of Diacetylmorphine (DAM) on Brain Function and Stress Response. The US National Library of Medicine. 2015. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01174927
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use? 2018. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-immediate-short-term-effects-heroin-use
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are the long-term effects of heroin use? 2018. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/what-are-long-term-effects-heroin-use.
  5. Medline Plus. Neonatal abstinence syndrome. 2019. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007313.htm
  6. Ornoy A. The developmental outcome of children born to heroin-dependent mothers, raised at home or adopted. Child Abuse & Neglect. 1996. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8735375
  7. Hayford S. M., Epps R. P., Dahl-Regis M. Behavior and development patterns in children born to heroin-addicted and methadone-addicted mothers. Journal of the National Medical Association. 1988; 80(11): 1197–1200. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2571530/
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dramatic Increases in Maternal Opioid Use and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. 2019. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/dramatic-increases-in-maternal-opioid-use-neonatal-abstinence-syndrome
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens. Are Some Babies Born Addicted? 2018. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/are-some-babies-born-addicted
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Opioid Overdose. Heroin. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/heroin.html

Published on: July 12th, 2016

Updated on: January 26th, 2021

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.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.