Signs & Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of heroin addiction. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin addiction and substance abuse

Synthesized from morphine and formulated using the poppy plant, heroin is an illicit drug that hinders a person’s ability to experience pain when an individual is under its influence. Commonly seen as white to brown powder or as a sticky, black substance, heroin is typically smoked or injected by users. This dangerous drug is one that is quickly absorbed by the body and can produce instant euphoric feelings, of which can severely impact a person’s cognitive and motor abilities.

The high produced by heroin can also last for a number of hours and elicit painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms if an individual becomes a regular user of this substance. Because of the unpleasantness of heroin withdrawal, people often become addicted and develop a tolerance for heroin, of which is a significant concern as increasing amounts of this drug can cause an overdose to occur.

Aside from the ever-present risk of overdose when a person develops an addiction to heroin, there are a number of other adverse effects that can severely impact every aspect of a person’s life. Luckily, there are viable options for treatment that can help people safely withdraw from heroin and receive care so that recovery can be achieved and sobriety can be sustained.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

Since research has yet to isolate the reason why some become addicted to heroin while others do not struggle with this type of substance abuse, many addiction specialists and professionals in the field of mental health agree that there are several influences that can cause a heroin addiction. More in depth explanations on these influences are expanded upon below:

Genetic: Extensive research has elicited proof that addiction can be inherited from one’s biological parents. In many cases, those with a heroin addiction have a first-degree family member who has also battled a form of addiction. Conversely, if a person possesses a family history of addiction, he or she is more likely to develop a problem with a substance, such as heroin.

Physical: Chronic abusers of heroin have a high probability for chemical imbalances and structural changes in their brains. Because of the chemical composition of heroin, addicts have a hindered ability to experience pain as a result. When this substance is running through a person’s system, chemicals within the brain are adversely affected such that they are not able to efficiently transmit messages indicating pain to other areas of the body. Additionally, certain structural changes occur in response to prolonged usage of heron, of which can damage a person’s cognitive functioning in a permanent manner.

Environmental: Addiction specialists agree that there are certain environmental factors that can cause a person to use heroin. Individuals who reside in particularly stressful home environments or communities and have access to this dangerous drugs are likely to use and or abuse it at some point in life. Moreover, people with a history of traumatic experiences are also at risk for heroin abuse if there is a lack of healthy coping skills and adequate support in place.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Lack of support system
  • High stress levels
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Access to heroin
  • Family history of substance use
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Low self-esteem

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

There are many signs and symptoms that loved ones can look out for when it is suspected that a friend or family member is using heroin. These inferences can range in severity depending on the longevity of a person’s addiction to this illicit drug. In the event a person is going to receive treatment for a heroin addiction, it is imperative to report the presence of any of the following signs and symptoms to a mental health professional so that treatment planning can include care for any existing symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long sleeves or pants when weather does not call for this type of dress
  • Slurred speech
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Bursts of hyperactivity
  • Inability to maintain responsibilities
  • Skin picking
  • Increased need for sleep

Physical symptoms:

  • Itching
  • Injection sites / track marks
  • Scabs or bruising of the skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Paranoia
  • Disorientation
  • Inability to make good decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Declined interest in things once enjoyed
  • Unpredictable and unstable mood
  • Poor self-control
  • Anxious feelings
  • Euphoria


Effects of heroin addiction

Those who use and/or abuse heroin are likely to experience a number of adverse consequences in several areas of their lives. Below are examples of such consequences that can be avoided if a person seeks treatment for a heroin addiction:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Damage to lung function
  • Incarceration
  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse and/or neglect
  • Exposure to infectious diseases
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Homelessness
  • Poverty
  • Family discord
  • Loss of employment
  • Poor academic performance
  • Abscesses at injection sites
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver disease
  • Divorce
  • Increased interaction with the legal system
  • Overdose
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

Many people who abuse heroin are suffering from some form of mental illness. Oftentimes, this type of substance use occurs because the user is trying to cope, granted in an unhealthy way, with symptoms synonymous with a mental health condition or conditions. Some of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses that are experienced by heroin users are:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Other substance abuse or addiction
  • Bipolar disorder

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal and overdose

Withdrawal from heroin: Symptoms of withdrawal are common among heroin users when they stop using this harmful drug. In most cases, withdrawal from heroin is painful and leads to continued usage in order to avoid the discomfort associated with it. Additionally, some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and elicit emergency medical attention in order to avoid further health risks. The listed symptoms are indicators that an individual is withdrawing from heroin:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Cold flashes
  • Uncontrolled muscle movement
  • Nausea

Overdose from heroin: An addiction to heroin most certainly puts a person at risk for overdose. With the most serious outcome being death, an overdose caused by the over-usage of heroin can produce a number of devastating and life-threatening effects if medical attention is not sought when the first signs of overdose become apparent. The following are prominent signs of overdose and warrant medical attention as soon as possible in order to prevent an untimely death:

  • Disorientation
  • Hypotension
  • Muscle spasms
  • Discolored tongue
  • Contracted pupils
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Labored breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Delirium

San Juan Capestrano Hospital taught me techniques that I needed to be able to live a healthy life, without addiction.

– Carlos D.