Heroin's Long Term Effects on the Body

heroin user injecting into arm

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The long-term and short-term effects of heroin use wreak havoc on your body. When a user does heroin repeatedly, it can cause actual changes in the physical structure and physiology of the brain which can create long-term imbalances in the neuronal and hormonal systems. These changes are difficult to reverse.

Increased Tolerance

The long-term effects of heroin use on your brain have major implications. When you do heroin, it bonds to your brain's opiate receptors. The opioid receptors in a frequent user's brain become less responsive to heroin. Now the user's tolerance increases and he must use ever-increasing amounts of heroin to get the desired effect.

Like many illicit drugs, heroin use can produce profound levels of tolerance and physical dependence. Tolerance means the user requires more and more of the drug to feel the same effects and dependence means withdrawal symptoms will manifest if the user attempts to quit using abruptly.

Dopamine Production

In addition to tolerance, long-term heroin use affects dopamine production in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in how your brain controls emotion, feelings of pleasure, reward, and movement.

Heroin triggers dopamine release, along with other neurochemicals. However, the brain reduces production of dopamine as it starts relying on heroin use to trigger its release. Over time, this can significantly impact the brain's reward system. A shortage of dopamine is also linked to symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When someone abruptly quits using heroin, withdrawal symptoms can begin within a few hours. Usually, the most severe withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose and subside after about a week. However, some users experience persistent symptoms for many months.

When an addict stops using heroin, they experience withdrawal symptoms if they don't get a fix. This is one reason why it's so difficult to kick a heroin habit. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal can include:

  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps

Risks of Addiction

Probably the most common long-term effect of heroin use is an addiction—described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as "a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will."

Heroin addiction causes the user to experience uncontrollable drug-seeking behavior regardless of the consequences. Heroin addiction is so profound that seeking and using the drug can become the primary purpose in the addict's life.

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