Recovery is just a phone call away.  
We're here for you 24/7. Call  
(908) 251-9994

Heroin Addiction: Definition  Symptoms, Causes, Effect, Treatment and Prevention

The 2021 NSDUH Annual National Report revealed that approximately 0.4% of people aged 12 or older in the United States (about 1.1 million individuals) reported using heroin in the past 12 months. Another Monitoring The Future survey also showed that among young students, an estimated 0.3% of 8th graders, 0.2% of 10th graders, and 0.3% of 12th graders reported using heroin in the past 12 months in 2022

Heroin is an extremely potent and addictive opioid drug that has devastating effects on individuals and communities. Heroin addiction develops when someone becomes dependent on the drug, experiencing intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms when they stop using.

The symptoms of heroin addiction include needle marks, drowsiness, constricted pupils, slurred speech, and cycles of hyperactivity and lethargy. Causes of heroin addiction include genetics, mental health issues, exposure to trauma, peer pressure, and easy access to the drug.

The effects of heroin addiction include increased risk of overdose and death, organ damage, respiratory depression, intense cravings, cognitive impairment, and negative social/behavioral consequences. Treatment options for heroin addiction often involve a combination of medication-assisted treatment, behavioral therapy, and long-term support to address the physical and psychological aspects of the addiction.

What is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by a compulsive need to use the highly addictive opioid drug heroin, despite the negative consequences it causes. 

Heroin is an illicit substance derived from the opium poppy plant, and it produces an intense, euphoric high that the brain and body quickly become dependent on. Users develop a tolerance, requiring more of the drug to achieve the same effects, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.

Heroin addiction is a complex disease with biological, psychological, and social factors contributing to its development and persistence. It is extremely difficult for individuals to overcome heroin addiction on their own, and effective treatment often requires a comprehensive, evidence-based approach involving medications, behavioral therapies, and long-term support. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction?

The signs and symptoms of heroin addiction include physical signs like slurred speech, needle marks, drowsiness; behavioral signs like social isolation, mood swings, stealing; and psychological signs like intense cravings, impaired judgment, and memory loss.

Physical Signs:

  • Needle marks, bruises, or track marks from injecting the drug
  • Constricted “pinpoint” pupils
  • Drowsiness, sedation, and “nodding off”
  • Slurred speech
  • Constipation
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Cycles of hyperactivity followed by severe lethargy

Behavioral Signs:

  • Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Stealing or engaging in criminal activity to obtain the drug
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Frequently asking for money or other resources
  • Mood swings, irritability, and depression
  • Doctor shopping to get multiple prescriptions
  • Lying about or hiding drug use

Psychological Signs:

  • Intense cravings and preoccupation with obtaining the drug
  • Impaired judgment, decision-making, and problem-solving
  • Memory loss and cognitive impairment
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues

These signs often worsen over time as the addiction progresses.

What are the Effects of Heroin Addiction?

The effects of heroin addiction is divided into physical, mental, and social consequences, including increased risk of fatal overdose, liver damage, cognitive impairment, depression, paranoia, legal troubles, neglect of personal hygiene and more.

Physical Consequences of Heroin Addiction:

  • Increased risk of fatal overdose and respiratory depression
  • Organ damage to the liver, kidneys, and cardiovascular system
  • Collapsed veins, abscesses, and other injection site infections
  • Heightened susceptibility to infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis. According to Magiorkinis, G., et al. (2013). Integrating Phylodynamics and Epidemiology to Estimate Transmission Diversity in Viral Epidemics. PLoS Comput Biol, 9(1), e1002876. People who inject drugs (PWIDs) are at the highest risk of getting hepatitis C (HCV) infection and are a significant factor in the increasing spread of the HCV epidemic. On average, each PWID infected with HCV is likely to spread the infection to 20 other individuals.
  • Compromised immune system and increased infection risk
  • Severe constipation and gastrointestinal issues
  • Irregular menstrual cycles and sexual dysfunction

How does heroin addiction impact the cardiovascular system?

Heroin addiction causes a slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, heart infections, endocarditis, and cardiac arrest, straining the cardiovascular system and potentially leading to life-threatening conditions.

Mental/Psychological Consequences of Heroin Addiction:

  • Intense cravings and compulsive drug-seeking behavior
  • Cognitive impairments, including difficulties with memory, attention, and decision-making
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. Research by Gilchrist et al (2011) titled Psychiatric Comorbidity in Illicit Drug Users: Substance-Induced Versus Independent Disorders. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 113(2-3), 147-156. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.07.013 showed that many individuals who develop substance use disorders, including heroin addiction, are also diagnosed with mental disorders
  • Apathy, loss of motivation, and lack of interest in hobbies/activities
  • Paranoia, hallucinations, and psychotic episodes
  • Increased risk of suicide attempts

How does heroin affect the brain?

Research by Fareed, A., et al. (2017). Effect of Heroin Use on Changes of Brain Functions as Measured by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a Systematic Review. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 36(2), 105-116 found that heroin affects the brain by quickly binding to opioid receptors, leading to a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This flood of dopamine creates intense feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Over time, heroin alters the brain’s chemistry, leading to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. 

Additionally, heroin use impairs cognitive functions, disrupts decision-making abilities, and increases the risk of mental health disorders. Long-term use causes structural and functional changes in the brain, making it challenging to quit and increasing the risk of relapse.

Social Consequences of Heroin Addiction:

  • Strained or severed relationships with friends and family
  • Job loss, financial instability, and inability to meet financial obligations
  • Legal troubles, including arrests for possession, distribution, or crimes committed to obtain the drug
  • Homelessness or unstable living situations
  • Social isolation and withdrawal from community involvement
  • Neglect of personal hygiene, appearance, and overall health
  • Increased involvement in high-risk, dangerous behaviors.

The physical, mental, and social toll of heroin addiction can devastate individuals, families, and communities. 

What are the Causes of Heroin Addiction?

The causes of heroin addiction include genetics, environment, psychology, and gateway drug use. Other causes can include peer pressure, chronic pain, and substance availability.

Genetic and Biological Factors

A recent study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis examined genetic data from more than 1 million individuals. They identified shared genetic markers present in addiction disorders, regardless of the particular substance involved, suggesting a common genetic basis for addiction.

These genetic factors can make some people more susceptible to the euphoric effects of heroin and more prone to developing compulsive drug-seeking behaviors. Structural and functional differences in the brain’s reward, memory, and decision-making regions have also been linked to heightened addiction risk.

Psychological and Behavioral Factors

Underlying mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and antisocial personality disorder, are strongly associated with heroin addiction. These conditions can lead individuals to self-medicate with heroin to cope with negative emotions, trauma, and psychological pain. 

Additionally, personality traits like impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and poor self-regulation increase the likelihood of heroin experimentation and the transition to compulsive use. Maladaptive coping mechanisms, lack of healthy stress management skills, and poor decision-making also contribute to the development of heroin addiction.

Environmental and Social Factors

The social and environmental context in which an individual lives can have a significant impact on their risk of developing a heroin addiction. Exposure to heroin use within one’s peer group or community, as well as the drug’s availability and affordability, can normalize and facilitate initial use. 

Socioeconomic disadvantages, such as poverty, unemployment, and limited access to education and healthcare, are also associated with higher rates of heroin addiction. Stressful life events, including trauma, abuse, or the loss of a loved one, can further increase vulnerability to opioid use as a means of self-medication.

Gateway Drug Use

The misuse of prescription opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin or Vicodin, is a well-documented gateway to heroin use. As individuals develop a tolerance to prescription opioids and face difficulties obtaining them, they may turn to the more potent and cheaper heroin as a substitute. 

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), young individuals who have not exhibited other problematic behaviors and have used all three gateway drugs (cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana) in the past month are notably more inclined to use additional substances such as cocaine, heroin, or LSD, particularly among boys.

Understanding these interconnected determinants is crucial for developing comprehensive prevention and treatment strategies to address this devastating public health crisis.

What are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Heroin?

The withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping or reducing heroin use include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, restlessness, bone and muscle pain, and respiratory issues:

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms of Heroin:

  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting
  • Diarrhea and severe gastrointestinal distress
  • Muscle and bone pain, as well as joint aches
  • Tremors, shivering, and goosebumps (“cold turkey”)
  • Sweating, fever, and chills
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Rapid heartbeat and elevated blood pressure
  • Respiratory issues, including sniffling and yawning

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Anxiety, irritability, and agitation
  • Depression and dysphoria (unpleasant mood)
  • Difficulty concentrating and cognitive impairment
  • Mood swings and emotional instability
  • Intense drug cravings and drug-seeking behavior
  • Restlessness, insomnia, and disturbed sleep patterns

The severity and duration of heroin withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on factors such as the individual’s:

  • Frequency and duration of heroin use
  • Dosage and potency of the heroin used
  • Method of heroin administration (e.g., injection vs. snorting)
  • Underlying health conditions
  • History of previous withdrawals
  • Access to medical and social support

Heroin withdrawal typically begins within 6-12 hours after the last dose and can last for up to a week or longer, with some symptoms persisting for several months. The withdrawal process can be extremely uncomfortable and dangerous, putting individuals at high risk of relapse. 

What are the Treatment Options for Heroin Addiction?

Treatment options for heroin addiction includes detoxification, MAT, behavioral therapies, support groups, counseling, and holistic approaches.


Medical Detox: Supervised, inpatient detoxification is often the first step in the treatment process for heroin addiction. During medical detox, healthcare professionals closely monitor the individual and provide medication, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to help manage the often-severe withdrawal symptoms.

In some cases, a gradual tapering of heroin use under medical supervision may be recommended. This involves slowly reducing the dose of heroin over time, while providing medication to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

According to a publication by the SAMHSA, titled Medications for Substance Use Discorder, medications and therapies for heroin addiction help decrease the risk of HIV or hepatitis C transmission by reducing the likelihood of relapse. Such FDA-approved medications are:

  • Methadone: A long-acting opioid agonist that helps reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms without producing the euphoric effects of heroin.
  • Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that works similarly to methadone but has a lower risk of overdose and can be prescribed by qualified healthcare providers in an office setting.
  • Naltrexone: An opioid antagonist that blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids, reducing the risk of relapse.

Behavioral Therapies

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors related to drug use.
  • Contingency Management (CM): Provides incentives or rewards for drug-free behaviors, such as attending counseling sessions or submitting negative drug tests.
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI): A client-centered approach that helps individuals resolve ambivalence and build motivation to change their drug use behaviors.

Support Groups and Counseling

  • 12-Step Programs: Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) offer peer support and a structured approach to recovery through the 12 steps.
  • Individual Counseling: One-on-one therapy sessions with a trained counselor or therapist can provide personalized support and address underlying issues contributing to addiction
  • Family Therapy and Education: Involving family members in the treatment process can help repair strained relationships, improve communication, and provide a strong support system for the individual in recovery.

Residential or Inpatient Treatment

Residential treatment programs provide intensive, round-the-clock care in a structured environment, often including detoxification, therapy, and educational activities.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient programs offer flexible treatment schedules that allow individuals to receive therapy and support services while still living at home and attending work or school.

Holistic Approaches

Some individuals benefit from complementary therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, or art therapy, which can help reduce stress and promote overall well-being during recovery.

Harm Reduction Strategies

  • Needle Exchange Programs: These programs provide clean needles and syringes to individuals who use heroin and other injectable drugs, helping to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
  • Naloxone Distribution: Naloxone is an opioid overdose reversal medication that can quickly restore normal breathing and save lives in the event of an opioid overdose. Increasing access to naloxone, both for individuals struggling with addiction and their loved ones, is a critical harm reduction strategy.
  • Safe Consumption Sites: In some countries, supervised injection facilities or “safe consumption sites” provide a clean, medically-supervised environment where individuals can use heroin and other drugs under the observation of healthcare professionals. 

The most effective treatment approach often involves a combination of these evidence-based interventions, tailored to the individual’s unique needs, strengths, and stage of recovery.

What is the Effectiveness of Harm Reduction Strategies in Treating Heroin Addiction?

A systematic review and meta-analysis by Ray et al, examined combined pharmacotherapy and CBT for adults with alcohol or substance use disorders. The review included studies on opioid dependence and highlighted the role of behavioral interventions in enhancing treatment outcomes. The meta-analysis found that combined CBT and pharmacotherapy had positive effects on substance use outcomes.

1. Needle Exchange Programs:

  • According to the CDC, needle exchange programs reduce risk of HIV/hepatitis C transmission by 54% among people who inject drugs.
  • Serve as an entry point to addiction treatment.

2. Naloxone Distribution:

Research by Abouk et al, titled Association Between State Laws Facilitating Pharmacy Distribution of Naloxone and Risk of Fatal Overdose (2019) found that state laws facilitating pharmacy distribution of naloxone were associated with a decrease in fatal overdoses.

  • Reduce opioid overdose deaths by 27% in communities with widespread access.
  • Prevent overdose fatalities and bridge to treatment.

3. Safe Consumption Sites:

  • Reduce overdose mortality by 35% and HIV incidence by 67%.
  • Provide entry to addiction treatment and other support services.

Overall, harm reduction strategies are vital in mitigating the negative health consequences of heroin use and facilitating access to addiction treatment, though they do not directly treat the addiction itself.

Where to Find Treatment for Heroin Addiction

You can find treatment in addiction treatment centers, community health clinics, private practice providers, SAMHSA, and state and local government resources. 

  • Addiction Treatment Centers: Inpatient and outpatient treatment facilities that specialize in the treatment of heroin and opioid use disorders. Offer a range of services, including medically-supervised detoxification, medication-assisted treatment, behavioral therapies, and aftercare planning.
  • Community Health Clinics: Many community health clinics and federally qualified health centers provide addiction treatment services, including medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine or methadone. These clinics often have sliding-scale fees or accept Medicaid and other forms of health insurance.
  • Private Practice Providers: Some physicians, psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers offer specialized treatment for heroin addiction in their private practices. Patients can self-refer or be referred by their primary care provider.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA maintains a national treatment locator that can help individuals find addiction treatment providers in their local area. The website ( also provides information on treatment options and how to access care.
  • State and Local Government Resources: Many state and local health departments, as well as social service agencies, offer resources and referrals for heroin addiction treatment. These can include hotlines, treatment directories, and assistance with navigating the treatment system.

It’s important for individuals seeking treatment to explore multiple options and work closely with healthcare providers to find the most appropriate and accessible treatment plan for their needs.

What are the Different Forms of Heroin?

The different forms of heroin include white powder, brown powder, black tar, persico, and fentanyl-laced heroin:

  • White Powder Heroin: The most common form of heroin in many parts of the world. It has a fine, white powdery consistency and ranges in purity from 30-90%, with higher purity typically more expensive.
  • Brown Powder Heroin: Also known as “brown sugar” or “rock” heroin, it has a brown, granular powder appearance and is less pure than white powder heroin, typically 10-50% pure.
  • Black Tar Heroin: A sticky, black, tar-like substance, formed when heroin is incompletely processed from morphine and is typically 30-60% pure, with a lower purity than powder heroin.
  • Persico Heroin: A rare and particularly potent form of heroin with a crystalline, rock-like appearance and can be up to 90% pure. It is named after the Italian organized crime figure, Pasquale Persico.
  • Fentanyl-Laced Heroin: Heroin that has been adulterated with the synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Fentanyl is significantly more potent than heroin, increasing the risk of overdose. This form of heroin is becoming increasingly common and dangerous.

The different forms of heroin have varying effects, onset of action, and risks of overdose. Purity levels also fluctuate, making it difficult for users to predict the potency of the substance they are consuming.

What are the different slang names for heroin?

Here are some of the common slang names and street terms used to refer to heroin:

  • Smack
  • Dope
  • Horse
  • Junk
  • H
  • Big H
  • Brown
  • White
  • Skag
  • China White
  • Tar
  • Black Tar
  • Chiva
  • Hell Dust
  • Diesel
  • Poison
  • Boy
  • Girl
  • Mexican Red
  • Thunder
  • China
  • Crap
  • Dead Presidents (referring to heroin packaged in envelopes with pictures of U.S. presidents)
  • Scag
  • Monkey
  • Cheese (when heroin is combined with cold medicine)

Where and how is Heroin Typically Manufactured?

Heroin is typically manufactured in the following regions:

  • Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran)
  • Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand)
  • Mexico

The manufacturing process involves extracting morphine from poppy plants, then chemically converting it into heroin hydrochloride powder or black tar heroin.

What are the Law Enforcement Efforts and Legal Implications of Heroin?

In the United States, law enforcement agencies play a critical role in addressing heroin distribution and use through various efforts and legal implications:

Enforcement Efforts

  • Law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and local police departments, conduct operations to target heroin trafficking networks and dismantle distribution channels.
  • Strategies may include undercover investigations, surveillance, and collaboration with other agencies to disrupt drug supply chains and apprehend individuals involved in heroin-related crimes.

Drug Control Policies

  • The United States implements drug control policies at the federal, state, and local levels to combat heroin production, trafficking, and abuse.
  • These policies encompass legislation, regulation, and enforcement measures aimed at reducing drug availability, preventing drug diversion, and supporting treatment and prevention efforts.

Legal Implications

  • Heroin possession, distribution, and sale are illegal under federal and state laws, with severe penalties for offenders.
  • Individuals caught using or selling heroin may face criminal charges, fines, forfeiture of assets, imprisonment, and other legal consequences depending on the circumstances of the offense and applicable laws.

Role of Law Enforcement Agencies

  • Law enforcement agencies collaborate with federal, state, and local partners, as well as community stakeholders, to develop comprehensive strategies for addressing heroin-related issues.
  • They may engage in community policing efforts, drug education programs, and diversion initiatives to prevent drug abuse, promote public safety, and support individuals struggling with addiction.

Legal Consequences

  • In the United States, the legal consequences for heroin-related offenses vary depending on factors such as the quantity of drugs involved, prior criminal history, and jurisdictional laws.
  • Penalties may range from probation, drug treatment programs, and rehabilitation services for non-violent offenders to lengthy prison sentences for individuals convicted of drug trafficking or distribution offenses.

Struggling with Fentanyl addiction? 

Struggling with heroin addiction? Our New Jersey rehab offers expert, compassionate care to help you reclaim your life. Don’t face this alone—reach out today for personalized treatment and unwavering support. Start your journey to recovery now at our dedicated addiction rehab center with Heroin Rehab in New Jersey. Your path to healing begins here.

Frequently asked questions 

What are the dangers of mixing Alcohol with Heroin? 

Combining alcohol and heroin is extremely dangerous, heightening overdose and long-term health risks. This mix causes extreme drowsiness, mood swings, vomiting, and severe lack of inhibitions. Both substances depress the same neurotransmitter, leading to slowed bodily functions, respiratory depression, and increased risk of coma or death. Always avoid mixing these depressants.

What is the difference between Heroin and Fentanyl?

Heroin, derived from morphine, is an illegal Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use, commonly used recreationally. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is a Schedule II drug, 50-100 times more potent than heroin, used medically for severe pain. Both can cause respiratory depression, with fentanyl posing a higher overdose risk.

Rubicon Recovery Center
View All Posts
The Rubicon Editorial Team is a collective of seasoned professionals from The Rubicon, a renowned drug and alcohol treatment center. Comprising addiction counselors, medical experts, therapists, and recovery specialists, our team brings a wealth of diverse experience and compassionate insight to our blog. We are dedicated to providing valuable, research-backed information and practical advice to support individuals on their journey to recovery. Our articles aim to educate, inspire, and empower those affected by addiction, offering a beacon of hope and guidance through the complexities of rehabilitation and wellness.

Share This Post

Related Topics

Gaba: Definition, Functions, Production, Release, role in Addiction and recovery

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps calm down overexcited neurons and maintain balance in brain activity, according to a study titled “GABA Receptor,” authored by Mary J. Allen et al. (February 2023). The primary function of Gaba is to regulate the activity of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It helps prevent…

Rubicon Recovery Center

July 8, 2024

Adrenaline: Definition, Functions, Release and Role in Addiction

Adrenaline is a hormone and neurotransmitter released by the adrenal glands in response to stress or perceived danger. It is also known as epinephrine, and its chemical structure is similar to noradrenaline, another important neurotransmitter. Its main function is to increase heart rate and blood pressure, which helps deliver more oxygen and nutrients to muscles…

Rubicon Recovery Center

July 8, 2024

Endorphins: Definition, Functions, Production, Release, role in Addiction and Recovery

Endorphins are chemical compounds known as neurotransmitters produced and released by the body in response to certain stimuli. They are crucial in regulating emotions, pain perception, and pleasure. These natural painkillers bind to specific receptors in the brain and block the transmission of pain signals. They help reduce the perception of pain and induce feelings…

Rubicon Recovery Center

July 8, 2024

Contact Us

If you or a loved one is grappling with addiction, don’t face it alone. Rubicon Recovery Center is here to guide you on the path to recovery. With a compassionate team and a proven approach, we’re dedicated to helping you reclaim your life. Reach out to Rubicon Recovery Center today and take the first step towards a brighter, addiction-free future. Your journey to healing begins with a single call. Please reach out to us today at (908) 251-9994 to book your appointment! And start your healing journey at our convenient facility.

Step 1 of 3

FIrst name*
Last name*