What does heroin do to you? It puts you at extreme risk after every use, causing extensive damage to the brain, organs and normal bodily functions.

Heroin is a highly addictive, illicit opioid. When you use this drug to experience euphoria, you also risk harmful heroin effects on the body, including extensive damage to your brain, organs and normal bodily functions.

What Happens When You Use Heroin?

When you take heroin, it binds to the opioid receptors in your brain and triggers a release of dopamine. Your body contains chemicals called neurotransmitters that typically bind to your opioid receptors, and they manage pain and feelings of well-being. When these receptors are activated in your brain’s reward center, dopamine is released, which is how you feel pleasure.

However, when you influence your opioid receptors with an outside substance like heroin, it pushes a flood of dopamine into your body, hence the temporary physical effects of heroin-like a euphoric rush. Your brain is wired to want to replicate behaviors that bring pleasure, which is why you feel the urge to use heroin repeatedly. However, if you use it continuously, you risk short-term effects of heroin, like track marks from heroin needles, and long-term effects of heroin, like addiction, diseases and other debilitating conditions.

Heroin Effects on the Brain

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “Repeated heroin use changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain, creating long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems that are not easily reversed.” While these changes happen gradually, the initial psychological effects of heroin on the brain include impaired decision-making and stress responses, and an inability to regulate physical behavior.

If you’re wondering what heroin does to the brain, it’s important to understand that heroin disrupts signals from the brain to the body, affecting normal bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. These functions are part of the autonomic nervous system, and heroin abuse can cause autonomic neuropathy or damage to these nerves.

Once the initial euphoric rush from heroin wears off, you may experience a period of drowsiness that can last for hours at a time. Confusion, a slowed and irregular heart rate and suppressed breathing — all signs of autonomic neuropathy — accompany the drowsiness. In severe cases of heroin use, the respiratory system can completely shut down. You may fall asleep and never wake up because autonomic neuropathy can cause you to stop breathing. In addition, suppressed breathing can limit the amount of blood and oxygen traveling to the brain, resulting in permanent brain damage, coma or death.

One of the most detrimental long-term effects of heroin use on the brain is the development of a heroin use disorder, which is a chronic brain disease. With repeated heroin use, your body can become dependent on this opioid and you can develop a substance use disorder. If you become addicted to heroin, you may experience compulsive, uncontrollable drug-seeking behaviors and may need heroin addiction treatment.

What Does Heroin Do to the Body?

Heroin use can damage your brain and your body. It can even change your physical appearance.

Some of the visible warning signs of heroin use include:

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Persistent cough
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Burn marks around the fingers
  • Flu-like symptoms, like chills or vomiting
  • Constipation

Other physical effects of heroin use include:

  • Slow, disoriented movement or a lack of coordination
  • Incoherent speech, nodding off and varying levels of alertness
  • Excessive sleep or extended periods of being awake
  • A disheveled appearance or neglected personal hygiene
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants in hot weather is a sign that you inject heroin

Using heroin can also have psychological impacts on someone’s personality. They may struggle with posture, frequently slouch or struggle to stand or walk. People using heroin may shuffle their feet when they walk.

Additionally, a noticeable heroin effect on the body is how the drug changes your lifestyle and behaviors. Some examples of this include:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • A lack of motivation
  • A lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
  • A decline in performance at school or work

Heroin and the Heart

Extensive heroin use can seriously damage your heart, and even lead to the development of heart disease. The excessive use of heroin and heart disease developments is highly concurrent. If you use heroin, it can damage the lining and valves of your heart, which raises your risk of heart infections and pulmonary issues.

In addition to heart disease, other severe health complications related to heroin and the heart include:

  • Heart failure: A non-fatal heroin overdose can cause heart failure from reduced blood pressure.
  • Heart arrhythmia: Heroin use can also cause heart arrhythmia, or an irregular heart rate or rhythm. This disparity affects the amount of blood the heart can pump to your body, ultimately affecting your brain and organ functions.
  • Pulmonary edema: Heroin can cause pulmonary edema, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood to the body consistently. This condition can cause blood to back up into the veins and lungs, affecting the normal flow of oxygen through the lungs. Pulmonary edema can cause kidney failure, heart attack and death.

Heroin and Teeth

With the use of heroin, teeth may become damaged indirectly. Drugs can damage your teeth, and detrimental dental effects vary depending on the substance. Heroin effects on teeth are often indirect, meaning the use of heroin doesn’t cause dental damage. Opioids like heroin can cause you to crave sugary drinks, candy and sweets. These cravings can be catalysts for cavities and gum disease.

If you use heroin, teeth damage may not be the only dental problem you experience. For example, common heroin use and teeth issues include gum disease, oral fungus and a variety of oral infections. More severe dental effects include weak tooth enamel from teeth grinding. Additionally, heroin and tooth decay may be an issue you experience because of cottonmouth symptoms. Research shows that with continued use of heroin, teeth may begin to look similar to those of someone who has meth mouth, which may result in tooth decay and extraction.

Heroin and Skin

The use of heroin, especially intravenous injection, raises your risk of painful skin diseases and infections. The more you use heroin, skin issues may become frequent problems. These complications may include:

  • Recurring skin infections
  • Heroin skin sores
  • Abscesses
  • Bacterial infections at injection sites
  • Gangrene, or the spreading of skin infection to other tissues in the body

Most of these heroin skin problems come from injecting the drug, either into a vein (intravenously) or into your muscle, which is commonly called muscling. A third way heroin is injected is under the skin, a type of shallow subcutaneous injection referred to as skin popping heroin. Using the skin-pop heroin method may lead to the development of abscesses and heroin skin sores around the injection site, and you may need medical attention to treat serious infections caused by skin popping heroin.

Heroin Scars

When you inject heroin, needle scars may occur, which are referred to as track marks. When you inject the drug into the same vein repeatedly, it can collapse, leading to heroin scars and scabs. Track marks from heroin may look like puncture wounds, bruises or scars, and can be discolored or raised. Heroin injection scars are most commonly found on the arm on the inside of the elbow but may occur anywhere a person injects heroin.

Heroin and the Face

Heroin can alter the appearance of your face. Some common heroin face issues can include:

  • Gauntness: Heroin use can cause rapid weight loss, which can often show on your face.
  • Sagging facial skin: People may remark that you look tired or older.
  • A bluish tint to skin: Heroin lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Scarring or scabs: Like many other opioids, heroin causes itchiness, which can cause you to scratch or pick at your face.
  • Runny nose or watery eyes: If you snort heroin, you may experience respiratory problems such as mucous discharge.
  • Bloodshot eyes: “Heroin eyes” is slang for bloodshot eyes from heroin use.
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Pale skin

Getting Help with Heroin Addiction

If you notice track marks, unexplained skin issues or other signs of heroin addiction in yourself or someone you love, don’t wait to get help. Recovering from heroin addiction is difficult, but it’s worthwhile, and there may be effective treatment options in your area. The Recovery Village offers comprehensive heroin addiction treatment at drug and alcohol rehab centers across the country.

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Medically Reviewed By – Christina Caplinger, RPh
Christina Caplinger is a licensed pharmacist in both Colorado and Idaho and is also a board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist. 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.