Heroin Addiction Health Risk Factors

Heroin is a life-threatening substance that can take over one’s life. Learn more about health risks of heroin here.

What is Heroin?

There is no doubt that heroin is a dangerous and highly addictive drug. For some people, however, their chances of becoming addicted to heroin and experiencing adverse effects are higher than others. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, about 117,000 people try heroin for the first time each year. Although not all those first-time users will become dependent, some have higher risk factors for heroin addiction than others.1

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Drug Class

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) lists heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance, has no meaningful medical purpose and has a high potential for abuse. Like other opiates, heroin is a potent painkiller, but its abuse potential makes it an undesirable medical treatment. As such, it is not legally prescribed or manufactured to treat pain. To obtain heroin, a person must purchase it through illegal means.
Heroin’s street names include:2

How is Heroin Used?

Most people associate needles and syringes with heroin use. However, many people who are addicted to this drug begin using it by snorting heroin or smoking heroin. Due to the negative stigma surrounding intravenous (IV) drug use, those using heroin for the first time may choose another route to try it.

Unfortunately, heroin remains highly addictive regardless of how it’s ingested. Snorting or smoking it does not protect against addiction. Any individual who becomes addicted risks eventually progressing to IV drug use due to its lure of a potent high.

Signs of Heroin Use and Addiction

Heroin and other psychoactive substances like opioids directly affect the body’s central nervous system (CNS), which controls the body’s vital functions, both physical and psychological. For example, “heroin eyes” — the constricted pupils seen in heroin users— result from heroin effects on optic nerves controlling pupil size.3 Other common signs of heroin use are: 

Physiological Signs and Symptoms

Behavioral Signs and Symptoms

Friends and family who suspect that their loved one is abusing drugs should be on the lookout for the following signs of heroin addiction.

Factors that Determine the Effects of Heroin

The effects of heroin may differ from person to person, depending on their size, health status, how they ingested heroin, what kind of heroin they used, and how much.4 For example, a small amount of heroin may not — by itself — result in an overdose. However, a small amount ingested in a short time with other drugs and psychoactive substances can create an overdose, worsening the heroin effects.  

When heroin is ingested with other substances, the risks and dangers may multiply. As an example, benzodiazepines and alcohol highlight the dangers that surround opioids. Because these drugs can sedate a person, these drugs can potentially lead to an overdose.

Heroin Addiction’s Effects

The effects of heroin on the body can be both short-term and long-term. These adverse effects can result in lifelong health conditions needing medical care.5

Short-Term Effects

Long-Term Effects

Risks of Heroin Addiction

Some individuals have a higher risk of heroin addiction and its effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following people are at a higher risk for heroin addiction:6

Once addicted, people who use heroin are susceptible to the following heroin risks affecting health.7

Health Risks of Heroin


Repeated intravenous injections open the door wide open to the risk of bacterial and viral infection, especially if needles are shared between users. Blood-borne diseases like HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C are spread through heroin needle sharing and have no cure.

Brain Damage

Long-term heroin use changes the brain, similar to psychoactive substances like other opioids. Data from the Recovery Research Institute shows that heroin addiction affects the reward centers inside the brain, changing the reward system process. These changes affect decision-making abilities and stress response. In addition, overdoses can deprive the brain of sufficient oxygen for long periods, damaging brain cells.8

Kidney and Liver

Heroin is produced in illegal laboratories with no quality control, leaving impurities and toxins in the product. Long-term use of heroin risks damage to the body’s filtration systems and can result in liver9 and kidney damage.10


The most significant health risk of heroin is death through a heroin overdose. Heroin’s influence on the central nervous system causes breathing and heart rate to slow down. A heroin overdose slows breathing down to the point where the body does not receive sufficient oxygen — resulting in death.

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

The best way for people who are addicted to heroin to avoid the health risks is to stop using the drug. Although recovery from heroin addiction is challenging, it is possible. Fortunately, a variety of treatment options exists to fit every individual’s needs.


The first hurdle to cross when stopping heroin is overcoming heroin withdrawal symptoms. As the toxins from heroin leave the body, the individual will experience the distressing signs of heroin withdrawal:

Performing heroin detox in a clinic surrounded by health professionals can make heroin withdrawal symptoms less uncomfortable and distressing for the individual. Heroin withdrawal symptoms depend on the amount of drug used and the length of the addiction.


After heroin detox, which may last for a week, most people benefit from rehabilitation treatment. Heroin rehabilitation treatment may be completed on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on the needs of the individual. Rehabilitation uses a combination of therapies — individualized for each client — to help foster healthy coping mechanisms and manage cravings.

Medication-assisted Treatment

Because heroin causes strong physical and psychological dependence, treatments typically involve a combination of medications and talk therapy to treat addiction. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), for example, utilizes medications like methadone and naltrexone to suppress and reduce heroin cravings.


Talk therapy may include a mix of individual and group appointments to practice cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and offer support. Receiving heroin addiction treatment in a supportive and compassionate environment is a critical factor to heroin recovery.