While heroin is most commonly injected, some people choose to smoke it instead. Find out why those people smoke rather than inject and what are the unique risks they face for doing so.

Heroin is a dangerous drug that can be misused in different ways. Smoking heroin sometimes referred to as “chasing the dragon,” is an uncommon method of abusing the drug. To smoke heroin, the drug is heated and the vapors are inhaled through a tube or a pipe.

Many of the individuals who choose to smoke heroin are new to drug use and are scared of injecting. However, regular heroin users may smoke small “test-doses” of heroin before injection to test its potency and avoid an overdose. Unfortunately, most individuals who start smoking heroin eventually end up injecting the drug as their addiction drives them to seek a more intense high.

Article at a Glance:

Smoking heroin is dangerous. Keep the following key points in mind when considering smoking heroin:

  • People smoke heroin by heating the drug and inhaling the fumes with a pipe
  • Smoking heroin is usually seen in people who are experimenting with the drug and are afraid of injecting
  • While someone may initially choose to smoke heroin, the majority of people who start out smoking heroin eventually shift to injecting the drug
  • Addiction is just one of the dangers of smoking heroin. There is no safe way to use heroin.

How Is Heroin Smoked?

To smoke heroin, the powder, brown base, or tar is placed on aluminum foil, heated (usually by holding a flame to the foil) and the vapor is inhaled through a straw or tube. Heroin can also be smoked by heating it in a glass hash oil pipe and inhaling the vapors through the pipe. Alternatively, heroin may be smoked by making heroin cigarettes.

When heroin is smoked, the drug goes from the lungs into the bloodstream and then to the brain. The result is the same as any other route of administration. However, the high is not as rapid and not as intense as it is with injecting the drug.

Heroin Pipe

Just about any straw-sized tube can be used as a heroin pipe. A glass or aluminum foil tube is used commonly, but people also use straws or rolled-up dollar bills. Alternatively, people may use hash oil or crack pipes to heat up and inhale heroin.

Heroin Cigarettes

Powder heroin can also be smoked by sprinkling the powder on tobacco and rolling a cigarette. Heroin can also be smoked by cooking it (using heat and acid to liquify the drug) and spreading the liquid on a cigarette.

Sometimes heroin is combined with marijuana into a cigarette, which is known as lacing. This use of heroin may be intentional for a more intense high, or it may be done by dealers to get their customers addicted to their particular product. This factor highlights one of the risks of buying marijuana on the black market: it may be laced with something as dangerous as heroin.

Side Effects of Smoking Heroin

Smoking heroin can rapidly lead to addiction and many people who start out smoking the drug move on to injecting it. Tolerance to heroin builds quickly, diminishing the effects and also increasing the risk of an overdose.

The main difference in the side effects of smoking and injecting heroin is that smoking avoids some of the side effects that are specific to injecting, such as needle-associated infections and damage to the blood vessels while smoking heroin can cause serious lung and respiratory side effects.

The most significant side effect of smoking heroin is death. As tolerance to heroin develops, people seek and require more of the drug to achieve the drug’s original effect, increasing their risk of overdosing. Like other opioids, heroin suppresses the brain’s drive to breathe, so when too much is used the person stops breathing and dies.

Smoking heroin shares the usual side effects of heroin use. Heroin purchased on the street can be cut with other chemicals. This process dilutes the heroin so that there is no way a buyer knows how pure it is or exactly what chemicals are in it. People can have negative reactions to these chemicals. For instance, smoking heroin can cause serious asthma attacks. Much more concerning, however, is that heroin smoking can cause a rapid, premature onset of the debilitating lung disease emphysema.

Why Do People Smoke Heroin?

While heroin provides the most powerful high when used intravenously, there are reasons people may smoke it instead. People may fear the needles used for injecting heroin, or they may be worried about the stigma associated with intravenous drug use. They may also be concerned about risks specific to injecting heroin, such as contracting HIV, Hepatitis B, or Hepatitis C.

When heroin is injected, it also increases the chances of the individual becoming addicted or dependent. However, smoking heroin is also highly addictive and the progression of that addiction almost always leads heroin smokers to begin intravenous injection use. This shift is reflected in the fact that only 4.8% of heroin users in the United States smoke the drug.

study of heroin users found that smoking “tester” samples of heroin are a common method of trying to avoid an overdose. Heroin users who fear overdosing from unknown quantities of other opioids (particularly the synthetic Fentanyl) may smoke a test dose of a new heroin batch to check on the strength before injecting the drug.

If you or a loved one live with a heroin addiction, contact The Recovery Village to speak to a representative about how treatment can help. Heroin is a dangerous drug that can result in an overdose. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Andrew Proulx, MD
Andrew Proulx holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, an MD from Queen's University, and has completed post-graduate studies in medicine. He practiced as a primary care physician from 2001 to 2016 in general practice and in the ER. Read more

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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.