What Does Heroin Look Like?

Photographs of Different Heroin Types

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. 

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Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive opioid drug that's derived from morphine, a substance naturally found in certain varieties of the poppy plant. Poppies grow best in warm, dry climates like South America, Mexico, and southern Asia.

Typically, heroin is sold as a white or brown powder or as a sticky black tar. It's often mixed, or "cut," with other substances such as flour, sugar, powdered milk, painkillers, starch, or quinine to give people who sell it more product and thus, more profit. Fentanyl has been increasingly added to heroin, increasing the potency and therefore the risk of overdose.

Street Names for Heroin

  • Brown sugar
  • China white
  • Dope
  • H
  • Horse
  • Junk
  • Skag
  • Smack
  • White horse

The following images display what heroin looks like in its different forms.

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin

 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Black tar heroin is dark brown or black and has a tar-like, sticky feel due to the crude way it's processed, which is different than the powder form of the drug. The color can vary depending upon what agents were added to it during processing to cut the purity of the finished product. It can be melted down and injected into the veins or smoked.

Black tar heroin is usually produced in Mexico and generally contains a very low percentage of pure heroin. It is, however, faster and easier to produce and therefore cheaper than other forms of heroin.

White Heroin

Powdered heroin

 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

White heroin (diamorphine hydrochloride) is the purest form of the drug, but it's usually cut with other substances, significantly reducing its purity.

White heroin can be difficult to identify because it can actually appear pink, brown, beige, or off-white because of the different chemicals that may have been used to process it. It's usually injected or snorted because it requires a much higher temperature to burn and smoke.

Brown Heroin

Brown heroin

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Brown heroin isn't as pure or potent as white heroin because it's not as refined.

It's produced in the first stage of purification of the drug. It is, therefore, easier to produce and cheaper than white heroin. Brown heroin is usually smoked because it doesn't dissolve well.

Asian Heroin

Asian heroin

 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Southeast Asian heroin is usually white, powdered, and highly water-soluble. Heroin from southwest Asia is typically a brown coarse powder with poor water solubility. Again, the color of the heroin changes depending on what materials it's cut with before it's sold.

Heroin Statistics

After years of declining use in the United States, heroin started making a comeback in 2007. The high demand is fueled by the increased availability of the drug. In addition, more people started using heroin as a result of the opioid epidemic.

Beginning in the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies misrepresented the dangers of addiction to prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Many doctors prescribed these medications to patients, and many patients became addicted.

It's common for people who become addicted to prescription opioids to start using heroin. Heroin is a type of opioid, but it is more easily accessible and cheaper than prescription opioids.

The increase in heroin use has also resulted in more deaths from heroin overdose. In 2014, the number of overdose deaths more than tripled compared to the number in 2010, and the number of heroin overdose deaths from 2002 to 2016 has increased by 533%.

According to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), since 2002, the number of people using heroin has jumped from 404,000 to 948,000 in 2016, an increase of 135%. However, the number of people using heroin only increased a relatively small amount from 2015 to 2016, showing stabilization in terms of people who are newly using heroin.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials believe the increase in heroin overdose deaths arises from these factors:

  • Today's heroin is cheaper and often purer, leading to accidental overdoses.
  • An increased number of young, inexperienced people are trying heroin.
  • Toxic substances, such as fentanyl, a narcotic pain medication that's even stronger than heroin, are being used to cut heroin in certain markets.
  • People who formerly used heroin and who start using again don't have the tolerance they once did.

Many people with prescription opioid dependence switch to heroin. According to government reports, almost 80% of people using heroin in the United States said they misused prescription painkillers first.

Signs of Heroin Use

While it may be difficult to know whether a friend or loved one is using heroin, there are physical and behavioral signs that may be indicators. The physical signs include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Track marks on hands, wrists, or arms (wearing long sleeves to cover marks)
  • Rotting teeth
  • Runny nose
  • Scabs or sores
  • Scratching
  • Slurred speech
  • Small pupils
  • Sleepiness or nodding off
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

Behavioral signs that someone may be using heroin include:

  • Disappearing for long periods of time
  • Lying
  • Financial problems
  • Missing school, work, or other commitments
  • Mood swings (unexplained highs and lows)
  • Stealing money
  • Withdrawing from friends and social activities

Another sign of heroin use is if a person has heroin paraphernalia in their possession such as burnt spoons, tiny baggies with white powder or black/brown residue inside, glass pipes, syringes, burnt aluminum foil, and/or straws or empty pens.

How to Get Help

If you or a loved one is using or withdrawing from heroin, it's important to seek medical attention. A doctor will perform a physical exam and likely perform other tests to make sure you don't have any conditions such as HIV, hepatitis C, and/or tuberculosis, which are all linked with heroin use.

While you can withdraw from heroin at home with a support system in place, a doctor may advise instead that you withdraw in a facility or a hospital, especially if withdrawal symptoms are severe.

There are some medications a doctor might administer to help you cope with withdrawal symptoms. These include methadone and buprenorphine. Buprenorphine may be combined with naloxone.

Naloxone is a medication that helps prevent drug dependence and is often used in emergency situations to reverse heroin overdose.

A Word From Verywell

Using heroin is illegal, extremely addictive, and far more deadly than other drugs. There is no typical profile of a person who uses heroin. Individuals of all ages and lifestyles have used heroin, though adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have had the highest increase in use.

If you happen to encounter this highly addictive drug, call your physician or a law-enforcement official to handle the drug and to find support.

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12 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.
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  2. Ciccarone D. Fentanyl in the US heroin supply: A rapidly changing risk environment. Int J Drug Policy. 2017;46:107-111. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.06.010

  3. National Library of Medicine. Heroin overdose.

  4. Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Types of heroin. Indiana University School of Public Health.

  5. Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Production and manufacturing. Indiana University School of Public Health.

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is the U.S. opioid epidemic?.

  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is heroin?.

  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 2016 NSDUH Report: American's Behavioral Health: Changes and Challenges.

  9. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). DEA Strategic Intelligence Section. DEA Intelligence Report. National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary—Updated.

  10. Mayo Clinic. Drug addiction (substance use disorder).

  11. U.S. Department of Justice. Drug paraphernalia fast facts.

  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is naloxone?.

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