Basic Facts About Heroin Use and Addiction

Inhibits the Central Nervous System

In This Article

Man Injecting Heroin

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Heroin is a highly addictive drug, and its use is a serious problem in the United States. Recent studies suggest a shift from injecting heroin to snorting or smoking because of increased purity and the misconception that these forms of use will not lead to addiction.


Street Names: Smack, H, Ska, Junk, Big H, Blacktar, Brown sugar, Dope, Horse, Junk, Mud, and Skag. Please see more street names for heroin.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that is processed from morphine, which comes from the seedpod of the opium Asian poppy plant. It is a depressant that inhibits the central nervous system.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Heroin in its purest form is usually a white powder. Less pure forms have varied colors ranging from white to brown. "Black tar" heroin is dark brown or black and has a tar-like sticky feel to it.

How Is Heroin Used?

Heroin can be injected into a user's veins, smoked or snorted.


There is no 'cookie-cutter' heroin user. Individuals of all ages and lifestyles have used heroin. According to the DEA approximately 1.2% of the population reported heroin use at least once in their lifetime.


Users who inject heroin will feel a euphoric surge or 'rush' as it is often called. Their mouths may become dry. They may begin to nod in and out and their arms and legs will feel heavy and rubbery. They may experience a diminished mental capacity and dulled emotions. The effects of heroin last three to four hours after each dose has been administered.

In addition to the effects of the drug itself, street heroin may have additives that fail to dissolve and result in clogging the blood vessels that lead to the lungs, liver, kidneys or brain. This can cause infection or even death of small patches of cells in vital organs.


There are many health risks to using heroin. The short-term risks include fatal overdose and the high risk of infections such as HIV/AIDS. The long-term user has additional risks such as:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Cellulitis
  • Liver Disease
  • Pulmonary complications, including various types of pneumonia
  • Overdose

Heroin abuse during pregnancy usually has adverse consequences including low birth weight, an important risk factor for a child's later development.


Tolerance to heroin develops with regular use. This means it will take more heroin to produce the same level of intensity to the user. This results in physical addiction to the drug developing over time.


When the drug is discontinued, the user will experience physical withdrawal. The withdrawal can begin within a few hours since it was last administered. Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes with goose bumps
  • Kicking movements
  • Muscle and bone pain

Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 48 and 72 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week.

Treatments for Addiction

Do you think you may need treatment for drug abuse? Take the drug abuse treatment screening quiz to find out.

There is a broad range of treatment options for heroin addiction, including medications and behavioral therapies. When medication treatment is combined with other supportive services, patients are often able to stop using heroin. Treatments include:

Methadone: Methadone is a synthetic opiate that has a proven record of success for helping people addicted to heroin. The medication blocks the effects of heroin for around 24 hours.

Buprenorphine: Buprenorphine is the most recent medication developed. It is different from methadone in that it offers less risk of addiction and can be dispensed in the privacy of a doctor's office.

Naloxone and Naltrexone: Other approved medications are naloxone, which is used to treat cases of overdose, and naltrexone, which block the effects of morphine, heroin, and other opiates.

Behavioral Treatment: There are many effective behavioral treatments available for heroin addiction. These can include residential and outpatient care.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Drugs of Abuse May 2016
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." DrugFacts April 2014
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Heroin." Health Topics 2016