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. A frequent user's brain accommodates the continuous bombardment of heroin by creating additional receptors. 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

More severe than 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 movement and a shortage of it is a cause of Parkinson's disease.

Heroin spikes dopamine production, along with other neurochemicals. This triggers the brain to stop producing it and start relying on heroin use as the primary source of production.

If the user doesn't get his fix and add dopamine to his body, withdrawal symptoms begin. The long-term consequence here is at some point your brain becomes unable to regulate its own neurochemical levels.

Decreased Well-Being

Long-term heroin use results in decreased well-being not only because it weakens your immune system. Addicts frequently don't take good care of themselves and neglect basic needs, such as hygiene and adequate nutrition.

This self-neglect can lead to a variety of consequences, which depend on the problem at hand. For example:

  • Nutritional deficiencies cause reversible and irreversible health problems
  • Poor hygiene can cause illness and pest infestations
  • Dehydration can cause health problems

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.

Withdrawal Symptoms

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
  • Sporadic leg movements

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 chronic, relapsing disease that goes beyond physical dependence on the drug.

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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Article Sources

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Research Report Series Updated January 2014.
  • The Palm Beach Institute: The Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use.
  • The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Heroin." Drug Guide.