Using Harm Reduction for Heroin User

If you use heroin, you're taking your life into your hands every time you use. There are many risks and harms associated with heroin use and the drug trade that enables it. The only true way to avoid involving yourself in these harms is by avoiding the drug completely.

However, if you choose to use heroin in spite of the risks, you can protect yourself and others from some of the worst consequences of heroin use by following these harm reduction tips for heroin users.

Please keep in mind that these harm reduction tips will not guarantee your safety—if you use heroin, you risk serious, deadly consequences. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


Choose Smoking or Snorting Over Injecting

Heroin packets

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Many heroin users start out smoking heroin, then as they become addicted, switch to injecting heroin. Although smoking, snorting, and injecting are all harmful, there are greater risks associated with injection drug use. These include contracting HIV and hepatitis, which are transmitted through needle sharing, abscesses, vein damage, and severe bacterial infections.

Snorting heroin doesn't have quite as instant an effect as smoking or injecting, but it will still take effect very quickly with much lower risk than injecting it. While all methods of heroin use carry the risk of overdose, it's less likely with smoking because you can stop once you feel high, whereas with injecting, once the drug is in your body, you can't do anything to reduce the effects or the overdose risk (see tip 3).


Always Use a Clean Needle to Inject Heroin

A clean needle
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Many of the harmful effects of heroin are related to reusing or sharing needles for injection.

Make it a personal policy to never, ever use a needle that someone else has used, and conversely, to never offer a needle you have used to another person.

Clean needles are freely available through needle exchange services. If you don't know where your nearest needle exchange is, read how to find a needle exchange, which includes links to listings in several different countries.

In an emergency, you can clean your needles by flushing them out with undiluted bleach, then flushing them with water three times. Remember, blunt needles cause vein damage.


Don't Use Heroin Alone

Paramedics putting person in ambulance in driveway
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Although many people are distressed by seeing another person using heroin, having someone nearby can save your life. Heroin carries a high risk of overdose, but if identified quickly, the overdose can be reversed by the administration of a drug called naloxone, which blocks the opiate receptors in the brain.

If you or someone you are with may have taken a heroin overdose, CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY.

Signs of overdose include:

  • Fewer than 12 breaths a minute
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Lack of response to pain

Use Infrequently and in Low Doses

Disposable syringes for health and medical usage
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Most of the coverage of heroin addiction emphasizes how addictive it is, and research does show that heroin users seem to fare very badly compared to users of other drugs, both in terms of how severely they become addicted and associated problems, such as unemployment and imprisonment. But it does seem that people who are already very troubled are attracted to heroin for self-medication. Some research has identified that low frequency controlled use is possible.

One way to prevent heroin addiction and promote harm reduction is to keep your dose low and infrequent, never increase the dose, and to back off from heroin completely if you find your usual dose is not effective.

Never use heroin two days in a row, and never use more to treat any heroin withdrawal symptoms.


Consider Treatment Options

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There are many different treatment programs available, and your choices will depend on where you live and whether you can afford to pay. If you are a heavy heroin user, you might consider methadone as a way of getting off heroin and letting your body recover from the damage caused by injections.

Although methadone is an addictive opiate, the dosages are precise, taken orally, and unlike heroin, it contains no contaminants.

Another option to consider if you have difficulty controlling your impulses is naltrexone. This is an oral slow-acting drug that blocks the opiate receptors so you won't get high on heroin. Suboxone, another option, combines buprenorphine and naloxone and works similarly to methadone to minimize withdrawal symptoms.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Novak SP, Kral AH. Comparing Injection and Non-Injection Routes of Administration for Heroin, Methamphetamine, and Cocaine Users in the United States. J Addict Dis. 2011;30(3):248-257. doi:10.1080/10550887.2011.581989

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Why does heroin use create special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Having Naloxone on Hand Can Save a Life During an Opioid Overdose.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing an Opioid Overdose.

  5. Wenger LD, Lopez AM, Comfort M, Kral AH. The phenomenon of low-frequency heroin injection among street-based urban poor: Drug user strategies and contexts of use. Int J Drug Policy. 2014;(25)3:471-479. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2014.02.015

  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.