The Recovery Village offers a full continuum of rehab services for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Find out why heroin is so addictive.

Heroin is a powerful opiate that has led many users to dependence and addiction. Though it’s unlikely that you’ll develop a full-blown addiction to heroin the first time you use it, that introductory experience can be the start of a compulsive cycle that quickly leads to addiction. The more frequently you use the drug, the more rapidly your brain and nervous system adjust to the chemical changes that it causes.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that nearly one-fourth (23 percent) of people who try heroin will become addicted. As of 2011, over 4 million Americans had tried the drug at least once. Simply put, if you never try heroin in the first place, you don’t have to worry about becoming addicted to it.

Why is heroin so addictive?

Made from morphine (a pain killer), heroin produces intense feelings of elation. This leaves users always wanting more of it, which often leads to addiction. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that reproduces the effects of opium, a substance derived from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), as detailed in this PBS article. When you inject, snort, or smoke heroin, the specialized opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system respond by triggering a potent release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that generates feelings of pleasure or euphoria. Once the brain gets used to the euphoric rush that heroin produces, the user can experience intense cravings for the drug.

Regular users can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using heroin or try to cut back. Although heroin withdrawal isn’t usually fatal, the experience can be so agonizing that many users would do anything to avoid it. Symptoms of withdrawal include nausea, vomiting, chills, diarrhea, goose bumps, tremors, muscle and bone pain, agitation, anxiety, and overwhelming cravings. These symptoms can start within 24 hours after taking your last dose of heroin.

Why is heroin so dangerous?

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant, which means that it also produces sedation. This is why heroin users talk about “nodding off” or “going on the nod” to refer to the deep drowsiness it produces. At high doses, heroin can slow the heart rate and respiration to a dangerous level, causing unconsciousness and death. In addition to the danger of overdose, heroin use can cause other serious health problems, including:

  • Permanent chemical imbalances in the brain
  • A deterioration in cognitive skills, such as decision-making and memory
  • Chronic heart and lung problems
  • Constipation
  • Frequent illness and infection
  • Exposure to blood-borne diseases (for IV users), including hepatitis B and C and HIV/AIDS
  • Infections or abscesses at the injection site, potentially leading to serious infections of the circulatory system

But the risks of heroin abuse haven’t stopped Americans from experimenting with this drug, or from becoming addicted. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, heroin overdose deaths increased significantly in 28 states between 2010 and 2012, indicating that usage of the drug is on the rise throughout the country.

Heroin addiction treatment with Dr. Kevin Wandler

How can I avoid getting addicted?

The best way to avoid getting addicted to heroin is to steer clear of the drug in the first place. If you are already using, seek help from a professional treatment program. Medically managed detox makes the experience of withdrawal safer and more comfortable. Opioid replacement therapy and anti-addiction drugs can help to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. As part of a comprehensive rehab program, you’ll have therapeutic support to help you build a healthy, drug-free future.

The Recovery Village offers a full continuum of rehab services for individuals struggling with substance abuse. Call our toll-free number today for information about our progressive treatment programs.

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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.