Heroin Use Disorder: About, Signs & Symptoms

Heroin is a highly potent drug that can take over a person’s life. However, some people are unsure if they have crossed the line between casually taking, or excessively using due to addiction. Knowing the signs and symptoms of Heroin Use Disorder (HUD) can help people prevent the dangerous effects of this drug addiction.

Out of all the opioids, heroin is considered one of the most well-known yet highly-addicting drugs of choice. With street names such as “China White”, “The Dragon”, or “White Horse”, this drug is often sold in small packets of white powder which can be snorted, taken orally, or injected. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), over 2% of adults suffer from Heroin Use Disorder (HUD), with the highest prevalence among people ages 18-25.

What Is Heroin Use Disorder?

Heroin Use Disorder (HUD) is the subcategory of the larger umbrella called Substance Use Disorders (SUD). To be considered someone who suffers from SUD, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) has implemented some criteria that will help professionals determine patients who can formally receive an addiction diagnosis.

With reference to the description found in DSM-V, the characteristics of someone with HUD are described under these four main categories:

  • Difficulties in controlling use: A person may attempt to stop but is unable to do so. They may also experience intense cravings when the drug is not taken. Patients often admit that they have used the drug more than they originally intended to.
  • Impairments in relationships: Those with HUD also report problems in relationships between friends, family, partners, and other loved ones. The root of these relationship issues is often linked to heroin use.
  • High-risk usage: Any type of drug habit seen in patients where physical, mental, or behavioral health problems are evident, but continued use is still present.
  • Health indicators: The person has already developed a drug tolerance, which means they need to take increasingly high doses of heroin to achieve the same effect. Additionally, they may also experience extreme bouts of withdrawal.

When a person has at least 60% of these traits in all the categories presented, it is possible that they are suffering from Heroin Use Disorder.

It is also important to note that there are signs and symptoms specific to heroin abuse which is different from other types of drugs. Below are some of the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that occur for someone with heroin addiction.

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Physical Symptoms of Heroin Use

People who have gone through heroin addiction for a shorter amount of time may experience the following physical symptoms:

  • Flushed-looking skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Arms and legs feeling heavy
  • Skin itching

These effects are often observed upon the first few moments of taking heroin. However, long-time abusers may find themselves having these physical symptoms, which is indicative of Heroin Use Disorder:

  • Collapsed veins and blood infections: When the mode of administering heroin is done intravenously, those with addictions may have noticeably damaged veins. They can come in the form of bruises or profuse bleeding. Blood infections may also occur, especially when foreign bodies enter the bloodstream through frequent injections.
  • Tuberculosis: This is a condition where a bacteria attacks the lungs, causing a blood-tinged cough, night sweats, and fever. Heroin can down a person’s immune system, causing conditions such as tuberculosis to be contracted easily.
  • Paralysis and coma: Heroin is considered a muscle relaxant. A high dosage of this drug taken frequently causes permanent brain damage to parts that are responsible for motor control. In severe cases, paralysis of the extremities or coma can happen to some patients.
  • Sexual dysfunction: People may have difficulties performing sexually, and women may also have menstrual disturbances. The weight loss, shifts in hormones, and other physical deteriorations caused by heroin addiction make the body operate at its bare minimum, putting less priority on sexual functioning.
  • Loss of muscle coordination: Heroin use is linked to the reduction of the brain’s gray matter, which controls muscle movements. Some people with HUD may have problems trying to operate machinery or perform fine motor tasks such as writing.

Mental Health Symptoms of Heroin Use

Aside from the staggering physical effects of heroin, another worrisome aspect of addiction to this drug are its mental health effects. Short-term use of the drug is characterized by the following symptoms:

  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Incomprehensible speech
  • Poor comprehension

Those who have been using heroin for longer stretches of time may be seen with these following effects:

  • Memory loss and poor recollection: Heroin is linked to decreased white and gray matter portions of the brain, which leads to the loss of previously learned information. Some people with HUD report having problems retrieving past experiences or forgetting skills that they have learned before.
  • Depression and anxiety: These two common mental health problems often exist when the effects of the heroin wean off. In fact, constant heroin use feeds depression and anxiety, as it becomes the ‘normal state’ when the drug is not taken.
  • Personality changes: Addiction changes the wiring of a person’s brain. Also called heroin mood swings, you may also notice personality changes when someone is hooked on this drug. They may isolate themselves, talk less frequently, or act ‘strange’ towards others.

Behavioral Symptoms of Heroin Use

Various types of heroin behavior are less evident in short-term use. Nevertheless, below are some signs that there is a growing addiction to this drug:

  • Experiencing a trance-like state
  • Feeling relaxed for long periods of time
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulties thinking clearly

There are also long-term heroin behavioral effects when people use the drug regularly:

  • Risky behavior: Addiction to heroin increases the likelihood that a person will do anything within their means to acquire the drug. This will take them into new heights by doing risky activities that are prohibited by law, such as buying drugs in the black market, faking prescriptions, and other similar actions.
  • Driving under the influence: Long-term addiction causes individuals to care less about decisions that could put their lives at risk, such as driving under the influence. They may experience minor to major crashes, road offenses, and other consequences of DUI.
  • Shifting moods: A person taking heroin is also prone to shifting moods. They can be relaxed and happy at one moment, then feeling depressed and anxious once the drug wears off. Since they have difficulties thinking clearly, they are also unable to process their emotions most of the time.

Help With Heroin Addiction and Mental Health

Heroin Use Disorder is a tight-gripping condition that people often wonder if there is help available to recover from it completely. If you or a loved one is suffering from the abuse of this drug, there are resources that can help for heroin addiction. Below are some steps you can take to get a headstart in battling heroin abuse:

  1. Find emergency services for life-threatening conditions: If you notice signs of a heroin overdose, the first step is to address this problem quickly. Acting on the initial symptoms of overdose can be a matter of a life and death–you can call 911 immediately for help, or the Poison Control Center.
  2. Contact a high-quality rehab center for heroin abuse: The best rehab centers have varied evidence-based treatment for heroin addictions. Addiction specialists will guide you through the process of preparing for inpatient rehab, coordinating with family members for staging an intervention, or helping you with the verification of your health insurance.
  3. Get educated: There are many excellent resources online that will help you further understand heroin addiction. These include the Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Center for Biotechnology Information articles.

These are some of the simple, actionable steps to do to take the first step towards recovery. Help for heroin addiction is within your reach by getting in touch with competent treatment centers. 

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Heroin Use Disorder? Don’t Let It Define You

Perhaps you’ve come to this page trying to find out the signs of heroin addiction. Even if you’ve confirmed heroin abuse in yourself or a loved one, you have the power not to let it define you. By making informed choices and steps to battle the addiction right away, heroin will lose its grip in your life.


  • Drugabuse.gov – “Heroin”.
  • Sciencedirect.com – “Opiate tolerance to daily heroin administration: an apparent phenomenon associated with enhanced pain sensitivity”.
  • Cdc.gov – “Basic TB Facts”.
  • Psycnet.apa.org – “Depression and anxiety in heroin addicts: A placebo-controlled study of doxepin in combination with methadone”.
  • Medlineplus.gov – “Poison Control Center”.
  • Samhsa.gov – “Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration”
  • Drugabuse.gov – “National Institute on Drug Abuse”.
  • Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – “National Center for Biotechnology Information”.

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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