What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illicit opioid substance that manufacturers extract from the seeds of the poppy plant. Also known as diamorphine or diacetylmorphine, heroin is classified as a narcotic analgesic, but there are no approvals for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Heroin is a derivative of the morphine alkaloid in opium with the chemical structure of C21H23NO5.

Converting opium into the more potent heroin involves a pH modifier, such as calcium hydroxide, and an acetylating agent. Illegal manufacturing of heroin is dangerous because it is further processed and combined with substances unknown to the consumer.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

The color of heroin indicates its purity, with white being the most pure and black being the least. This comes into play with both forms of heroin: the powder or the sticky, tar-like substance. The powders are either white or brown, while the sticky variety is black, often known as “black tar” heroin. Some black tar heroin looks like a lump of coal and is solid.

How Do People Use Heroin?

People abuse heroin by snorting, smoking, or injecting it, with all methods producing numerous risks.

Powder heroin is snorted or smoked, while some prefer to smoke black tar heroin by placing it on aluminum foil and using a lighter to heat it. Users then inhale the fumes that arise using a pipe or funnel. When snorted or smoked, the drug is delivered to the brain first.

Injection methods deliver heroin directly into the bloodstream, so some choose this method to feel the effects of the drug sooner. Black tar heroin must go through a process to be usable and is usually placed in a spoon, heated, and melted into a liquid form before being injected intravenously.

Featured Centers Offering Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Short-Term Effects Of Heroin

When a person uses heroin, the drug travels to the brain, where it binds to opioid receptors. The binding causes a release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. The dopamine release causes a rush of pleasurable sensations and other short-term effects, such as:

  • Dry mouth
  • Heaviness in the arms or legs
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching

  • Drowsiness
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Slow breathing
  • Confusion
  • A blocking of pain messages

Long-Term Effects Of Heroin

Heroin addiction and abuse can lead to long-term physical and psychological changes. Some long-term effects are reversible after a person quits using heroin, but not all. Potential effects include:

  • Substance-induced mental illness
  • Hormonal imbalance
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Mucosal tissue damage in the nose
  • Nasal septum perforation
  • Lung complications
  • Collapsed veins

  • Abscesses
  • Bacterial infections in blood vessels or heart valves
  • Blood clots
  • Arthritis
  • Blood-born viruses from sharing needles
  • Withdrawal syndrome
  • Deterioration of white brain matter
  • Tolerance and dependence

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin is very addictive. The path to heroin addiction begins when the drug enters the brain and gives a person a rewarding, pleasurable sensation. The brain likes this feeling and will do anything to help a person continue misusing it. One way is by building tolerance.

Tolerance develops when a person must increase the amount of heroin they use to feel the desired effects of the drug. Tolerance can lead to a dependence on heroin, where the brain thinks it needs the drug to survive.

Multiple risk factors may contribute to the development of a heroin use disorder, including:

Withdrawal syndrome is another factor in addiction. When someone tries to cut back or quit using heroin, they quickly feel painful withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms are so uncomfortable that it becomes easier for someone to continue using heroin rather than go without it. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Tearfulness
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Goosebumps
  • Dilated pupils

Signs Of Heroin Addiction

Once a person develops an addiction to heroin, it becomes their priority. Signs of heroin addiction include:

  • Development of major health problems
  • Poor hygiene
  • Weight loss
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Mood swings
  • Mental health issues
  • Track marks from injections
  • Wearing clothing to cover up track marks

When a licensed treatment professional diagnoses a person with heroin use disorder, they use eleven criteria. Anyone meeting two to three criteria has a mild addiction, while four to five criteria is a moderate addiction, and six or more is a severe addiction. The criteria are as follows:

  • Increasing amount and time of drug use
  • Wanting to cut back or quit but being unable to
  • Spending a lot of time seeking, using, and recovering from the drug
  • Experiencing cravings and intense urges
  • Using interferes with fulfilling duties at home, work, or school
  • Continuing to use it even though it damages relationships
  • Using heroin in risky situations
  • Avoiding activities to spend more time using heroin
  • Continuing to use even though it further harms physical or psychological health
  • Increasing tolerance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when using less of the drug

Can Someone Overdose On Heroin?

An overdose can happen anytime someone misuses heroin, as this drug is rarely pure and unaltered. An allergy or reaction to those unknown substances can be just as dangerous as heroin.

In 2021, 9,173 people died from a heroin overdose.

Because doses of heroin are not consistent, a person may be able to handle one dose but overdose on another. A person overdosing on heroin may:

  • Turn pale, with skin that feels clammy when touched
  • Feel that their body is limp
  • Have their fingernails or lips turn blue
  • Vomit or make gurgling noises
  • Slip out of consciousness
  • Be unable to speak

  • Take shallow breaths with the heartbeat slowing or stopping
  • Experience tongue discoloration
  • Have pinpoint-size pupils
  • Experience stomach or intestine spasms
  • Have uncontrollable muscle movements
  • Feel delirious or disorientated

If you believe someone is experiencing a drug overdose, stop reading and seek emergency care as soon as possible. 

Explore Your Treatment Options

If you or someone you know is ready to get help for a heroin addiction, contact a treatment provider today. They can help answer your rehab-related questions and provide you with your treatment options.