How Addictive Is Heroin?

We often hear about the opioid crisis in the media and how it affects so many people’s lives. A large chunk of this crisis pertains to the specific opioid called heroin, which is considered one of the most addictive substances both available as prescription and street drugs. How addictive is heroin exactly? Understand why so many people get hooked with this drug and learn how to get help.

Understanding Heroin: A Brief History

Heroin was created with the intent of providing pain relief which is more effective than morphine or codeine. Its infancy stages date as far back as 1898 when it was first commercially released. Produced through the acetylation of morphine, it was touted as a “wonder drug” especially for people with respiratory illnesses.

However, the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” started to show itself when people who were first given heroin developed a tolerance and became dependent. Thus, the medical community regulated the use of the drug, but it was too late–heroin was potent, sought-after, and people began administering them intravenously. Several decades later, its discovery eventually evolved to the crisis which we now call today.

This simple summary of the history of heroin gives us a picture of how addictive this substance can be. Further on, we will understand how potent this drug is, the signs of addiction, and treatment options available.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

First-time users may wonder, “What does heroin look like?” The pure form of heroin looks like a white powder. With the naked eye, it looks very similar to confectioner’s sugar, which is very fine rather than granulated. However, there are other types of heroin with various colors, often when mixed with other substances or additives to give it an extra “boost”.

For example, some heroin can be rose gray, brown, or black. Some of these additives can include sugar, rat poison, or caffeine. Many street heroin can include these other substances which serve as extenders for the pure heroin.

Heroin can be administered in various ways, such as smoking, snorting, taken orally, or through an injection. The quickest way for the drug to enter the bloodstream and in the brain is through the intravenous method. However, this poses higher risks as impure heroin can clog the blood vessels and cause circulation problems.

Addiction To Heroin

The next question would be, how addictive is heroin, to be exact? We all know that many drugs can be addictive, but what sets heroin apart?

The answer lies on the fast-acting mechanism of this opioid. According to a study in PubMed, many users report a feeling of “rush” or a “surge” of euphoric feelings as one takes the drug. This inexplicable pleasure that quickly appears just minutes of taking the drug is what makes it so addictive.

As the brain’s reward centers become flooded with dopamine, a substance-seeking behavior develops. Some individuals report becoming hooked on the drug even after first-time use.

People who start to take heroin orally may start to develop a tolerance, which will move them further to IV administration. This progresses into a severe addiction, until they experience severe heroin withdrawal, making it almost impossible to quit. Long-term addiction to heroin can lead to overdose and death when not addressed properly.

The current state of heroin addiction in the United States show us truly how widespread this problem is:

Heroin abuse statistics

  • In 2016, almost 1,000,000 people reported heroin use in the past year.
  • Numbers have been on the rise in heroin abuse since 2007.
  • People ages 18-25 are the majority of these people addicted to heroin.
  • Many suburban and rural communities are affected by heroin abuse, which is far from the impression that heroin addiction is limited to urban locations.
  • Synthetic heroin causes more overdose cases and deaths as its potency is adjusted, increasing its addictiveness.

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Heroin Addiction and Abuse

Now that we have understood why heroin is addictive and how potent it is, another crucial topic is learning the signs of heroin addiction.

Many people suspect heroin addiction in their loved ones, or in themselves but are unsure of the symptoms. Even younger populations may mistakenly call the drug “heroine”, searching for terms such as “signs of heroine’s use”. This is understandable–a lot of us need all the knowledge and resources as much as we can. In here, we discuss the potential signs, symptoms, and effects of heroin use disorder.

Addiction to heroin symptoms and signs

  • Increased agitation when one is not taking the drug
  • Drowsiness or slow movements
  • Small pupils, also called “heroin eyes”
  • Memory problems
  • Slurred or incomprehensible speech
  • Needle marks on arms or other parts of the body (for IV heroin)
  • Frequent runny nose, nose bleeds, or sores (for snorting heroin)
  • Higher pain tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not taking heroin or decreasing dosage

Aside from these physical signs, you may also notice these changes in behavior that are common to people who are suffering from substance use disorder.

  • Drastic change in physical appearance
  • Weight changes
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Financial problems
  • Loss of interest in previous activities and occupations (work, school, household tasks)
  • Risky acts
  • Mood changes
  • Personality changes

If you notice these physical, mental and behavioral symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it is highly likely that they are suffering from heroin addiction.

Initially discussed are withdrawal symptoms that are related to heroin abuse. When one has developed a dependency on any type of drug, withdrawal symptoms occur as the body’s response to a lack of the substance in the system. Here are some common withdrawal symptoms for heroin addiction:

Heroin withdrawal symptoms

  • Muscle pain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Intense cravings
  • Flu-like symptoms

At the very least, heroin withdrawal can be uncomfortable. However, in most cases, it is difficult to manage it on your own. It can also be potentially fatal when organs have difficulties functioning because of drug dependency. It is best to seek professional help when trying to detox from heroin.

Heroin Effects

When one is addicted to heroin, there are various short-term and long-term health effects. The effects vary depending on the degree and frequency of heroin use.

Short-term effects

  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed-looking skin
  • Heavy feeling in the muscles
  • Drowsiness
  • Mental fog
  • Slow heart function
  • Slow breathing
  • Decreased sensation of pain

Long-term effects

  • Deterioration of the brain’s white matter (memory, decision-making abilities)
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Mental health issues
  • Heart problems
  • Lung problems
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Blocked arteries
  • Coma
  • Death

The long-term effects are a result of the drug’s potency and tendency of individuals to have increased tolerance over time. Ultimately, when the body cannot process much of the drug, some vital organs can malfunction, as heroin is a sedative. When the heart and lungs slow down in their function, it can cause coma, permanent brain damage and death.

Getting Help

If you’ve looked over this information and concluded that you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, know that help is available. People can successfully recover from heroin abuse by seeking professional help and deciding to commit to treatment. Below are the steps to do this:

  1. Get in touch with a trusted heroin rehab center. It is important to call a high-quality rehab center that offers custom treatments for heroin abuse. These options can include medical detox, 12-Step treatments, and other Non-12-Step options that can suit your needs.
  2. Prepare yourself. There are several preparations necessary before getting into addiction rehab. These include finances, work schedules, home schedules, packing your things, and other instructions for a temporary leave. Make sure that all boxes are ticked before heading for treatment.
  3. Stay informed. There are many resources available for heroin addiction online. Additionally, aftercare procedures after rehab will give you sufficient information on how to stay sober even after leaving the facility.

Be Your Own Hero: Recovery Is Possible

Heroin can give you a high that only lasts a few moments, but true “high” you can feel when you’re healthy and happy cannot be matched by any kind of drugs. Be your own hero–it is possible to stop your heroin addiction and achieve full sobriety.


  • – “The History of Heroin”.
  • – “The Textures of Heroin: User Perspectives on “Black Tar” and Powder Heroin in Two US Cities”
  • – “Heroin Addiction”.
  • – “What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?”.
  • – “What are the long-term effects of heroin use?”
  • – “Working memory and affective decision-making in addiction: A neurocognitive comparison between heroin addicts, pathological gamblers, and healthy controls”.

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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