Heroin is a dangerous drug that leaves thousands in its wake every year. It’s highly addictive and can quickly become the central focus in your life. People lose families, jobs, relationships and self-respect to heroin. It’s a drug addiction that must be taken seriously. Learn about heroin abuse signs and symptoms, and how to get help for you or a loved one.

Signs of Heroin Use

The possibility that your loved one is a heroin user may feel frightening. You’ve likely heard about the deadly heroin epidemic and the bleak statistics that accompany it. If you’re worried that a loved one is using heroin, look for these heroin abuse signs and symptoms:

Immediate Effects of Heroin

People who use heroin report a feeling of bliss. This is followed by feelings of heaviness and calm. They may drift in and out of sleep for several hours as well. Outward signs and symptoms of heroin use that may happen shortly after taking the drug include:

  • Dozing off (commonly known as “nodding off”)
  • Small pupils and glassy looking eyes
  • Slow breathing
  • Drinking lots of liquid due to dry mouth
  • Itching
  • Clumsiness
  • Extremely loose and relaxed
  • Runny nose
  • Confusing and slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting

Other Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin dependence can quickly develop. As heroin addiction progresses, so does desperate behavior. Feeding their drug addiction is the main focus in a heroin user’s life. Everything else is unimportant. General signs of heroin abuse include:

  • Weight loss
  • Track marks on arms, legs, and between fingers and toes
  • Sleeping at odd times
  • Rarely showering, brushing teeth, shaving and wearing clean clothes
  • Scabs
  • Bruises
  • Low energy
  • Mood swings
  • Wheezing
  • Financial problems
  • Stomach issues from withdrawal
  • Neglecting work, school or personal obligations

Items for Using Heroin

Warning signs of heroin abuse also include finding items people use to store and take the drug. These may include:

  • Needles
  • Glass pipes
  • Burnt tin foil and spoons
  • Small baggies or balloons
  • Sticky, dark residue from black tar heroin
  • Items that can be tied around the arm or leg to prep veins
  • Cigarette filters

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is extremely addictive. Some addiction experts put it at the top of the list of addictive substances. It’s hard to just “try” heroin. Heroin users say the high of heroin is like none other. They turn their lives upside down to experience that high again and again.

Casual heroin use can quickly progress to heroin abuse and addiction. If you’re worried that you or a loved one has a heroin problem, review these heroin addiction signs:

  • Having heroin withdrawal symptoms without the drug (see heroin withdrawal below)
  • Spending lots of time and energy on getting and using heroin
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit or cut back on heroin use
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Selling possessions for drug money
  • Stealing for drug money
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of motivation
  • Neglecting work, school, family and friends
  • Financial and legal problems because of heroin use

Signs of Heroin Overdose

Heroin overdose is a real threat. Almost 68% of the 70,200 overdose deaths in 2017 involved opioids including heroin. If you or someone you love is showing signs of heroin overdose call 911. There are medications that can help reverse a heroin overdose before it’s too late.

Signs of a heroin overdose include:

  • Gurgling, choking or snoring sounds
  • Unconsciousness
  • Limp body
  • No pulse or slow pulse
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Not breathing
  • Bluish or gray colored skin
  • Blue or purplish lips and nails

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

A common symptom of heroin addiction is heroin withdrawal. With regular heroin abuse, your brain starts to rely on the drug to function normally. The brain becomes less responsive to heroin over time. It needs higher doses to get the same effect and prevent withdrawal.

Heroin dependence impacts parts of the brain involved in functions like breathing, blood pressure and wakefulness. When heroin is present it slows down these processes. Without heroin, the brain goes into high alert, increasing activity. This is what causes some heroin withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, stomach issues and cramps.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Muscle pain
  • Flu-like achiness
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Fast heartbeat
  • High blood pressure

Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be painful. In rare cases, complications from heroin withdrawal can be fatal. Excessive vomiting and diarrhea can contribute to dehydration and high levels of sodium in the blood. These symptoms can lead to heart failure. It’s important that heroin detox takes place in a licensed treatment center. Medical professionals can ease heroin withdrawal symptoms with medications. They can make sure you’re safe and as comfortable as possible.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Heroin abuse can have long-term effects on your life. It can change the structure of your brain. Heroin abuse may create imbalances in brain chemicals and shrink white matter. These changes can lead to problems:

  • Making decisions
  • Regulating behavior
  • Responding to stress

Other long-term effects of heroin use include:

  • Liver and/or kidney disease
  • Respiratory depression
  • Chronic pneumonia
  • Collapsed veins from injecting the drug
  • HIV or Hepatitis
  • Seizures
  • Blood clots and stroke
  • Heart attack

It can also lead to heroin use disorder. This is a chronic disease that impairs your judgement. You’ll do anything to get the drug. Your life revolves around heroin. Another symptom of heroin use disorder is chronic relapses.

Heroin addiction can also contribute to anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms. Heroin abuse may cause imbalances of brain chemicals that regulate mood. It can take some time to rebalance those chemicals.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Effective heroin abuse treatment usually combines behavioral therapy and medications. Currently the FDA approves three medications for heroin addiction treatment. These medications work on the brain in similar ways as opioids and heroin, without getting you high. In doing so, they can help ease heroin withdrawal and heroin cravings. This helps you focus on addressing underlying issues and building relapse prevention skills. These medications may also help you stay sober longer.

Heroin medications are most effective when you’re also involved in intensive behavioral therapy. Inpatient treatment is often needed to get the level of care you need to recover from heroin abuse. Heroin residential treatment programs may offer approaches like:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT helps you identify unhealthy thoughts. You’ll learn about healthy self-talk. You’ll challenge negative beliefs about yourself. You’ll see how your behaviors, thoughts and emotions work together.
  • Medication management – Many times drug abuse and mental health disorders occur together. This is called co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis. You’ll meet with a psychiatrist to see if medications can help manage your mental health symptoms if needed. Medication, such as methadone, may be given to help suppress withdrawal symptoms. These drugs given have addictive properties because of their ability to suppress pain. They must be taken as directed by your physician.
  • Contingency management – Sometimes positive reinforcement like more free time, phone use or vouchers are given when clients follow their treatment plan.
  • Individual therapy – Counseling with a therapist helps you address some of the reasons behind drug addiction. These can include emotional pain, relationship problems and low self-esteem.
  • Group therapy – Sharing with people who struggle with similar issues can be healing. Group therapy provides connection and community in recovery.
  • Family programs – Family therapy helps you work on relationships with your loved ones. They’ll learn how to support you. Together, you’ll learn how to communicate better.

Residential programs may also offer alternative approaches. These help you heal in different ways than talk therapy. Alternative approaches may include:

  • Fitness
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Art therapy
  • Trauma work
  • Adventure therapies

Recovery from heroin addiction has unique challenges, but a better life is possible. People just like you are living amazing, healthy lives in recovery after feeling the despair of heroin addiction. Call 844-876-7680 to take the first step toward recovery today.

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Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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