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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
- Recurring skin infections
- Heroin skin sores
- 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.
- 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
Campellone, M.D., J. V. (2014, November 5). Autonomic Neuropathy. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000776.htm
Christensen, J. (2014, August 29). How Heroin Kills You. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/04/health/how-heroin-kills/
Delta Dental. (2016, December). Under the Influence: Your Teeth on Drugs. Retrieved from https://www.deltadentalins.com/oral_health/drugs.html
Dental.net. (n.d.). Drug Abuse and What it Does to Our Teeth. Retrieved from https://www.dental.net/dental-nutrition/drug-abuse-on-teeth/
Martin, MD, L. J. (2016, May 1). Heroin Use, Addiction, Effects, Withdrawal, and More. Retrieved from #” data=”LegitScript#1
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017, January). DrugFacts: Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
The Role of Chemistry in History. (2008, April 24). Heroin: Discovery. Retrieved from http://itech.dickinson.edu/chemistry/?p=486#more-486
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.