The Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use

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The opioid heroin has been around for literally hundreds of years in various forms, including at one point serving as a cough medicine, of all things. Heroin was originally derived to serve as a less-addictive alternative to morphine, but unfortunately, addiction rates instead quickly skyrocketed.

Currently, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people in the United States are suffering from a dependency on heroin. Heroin is a significant contributor to the country’s opioid crisis, having been responsible for nearly 16,000 overdose deaths in 2016.

However, while the chances of fatal overdose are frightening enough, this is only one of many consequences of heroin addiction. The habitual use of heroin causes many other negative and, in many cases, irreversible effects that only increase in severity the longer an individual abuses it.

The effects of regular heroin abuse on your body and brain are debilitating and often deadly enough on their own that overdosing doesn’t even have to enter the picture as a fatal danger of using heroin.

What Effects Does Heroin Have on the Brain?

Heroin acts on the central nervous system and brain in order to produce its main effects, heightened senses of pleasure and euphoria, as well as sedation. The body naturally produces its own opioid-like substances, but heroin is much more potent, creating a significantly amplified effect.

Heroin works by quickly binding to the brain’s opioid receptors, blocking pain signals and stimulating dopamine levels by inhibiting a neurotransmitter called GABA that regulates the production and release of dopamine. Without the GABA neurotransmitters able to do their job, heroin floods the brain with dopamine, serotonin, and other “feel-good” chemicals, causing a spike that activates the reward and pleasure circuits of the brain.

Over time, with repeated use, the brain adjusts to the presence of heroin by creating additional opiate receptors with which heroin can bond. As it’s bombarded over and over again with high levels of heroin, the brain begins creating more places to put the heroin, so to speak. This is what causes an individual’s tolerance to increase, as they have to start escalating their dosage in order to achieve the desired effects.

Heroin’s constant stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center cements the association of heroin use with feelings of intense pleasure. Repeated use, therefore, creates psychological and physical dependence. The brain will stop producing its own dopamine and rely instead on heroin as the sole source of neurochemical production, which creates uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when someone who has been regularly using heroin for long periods of time stops taking it.

These effects can cause serious, often permanent alteration and damage to the brain, including:

  • Inability to regulate neurochemical levels
  • Deterioration of white and gray matter brain cells
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Inability to regulate behavior
  • Inability to respond to stress
  • Impaired processing of information

While many of these effects have been proven to be reversible in the short-term, the longer someone abuses heroin, the less likely their brain will ever function the way it did before they started using.

What Effects Does Heroin Have on the Body?

The physical effects of long-term heroin use are as serious as they are varied and far-ranging. While the obvious effects include an overall decline in hygiene and addressing basic needs such as eating and sleeping regularly in favor of sustaining their habits, other damage that heroin inflicts on a user’s body includes:

  • Significantly weakened immune system
  • Swollen gums and damaged teeth
  • Insomnia
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Impotence
  • Severe constipation
  • Depression
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney damage

The different ways heroin can be ingested also affects the kinds of health problems that can arise. If heroin is smoked, it can lead to serious lung problems and leave the user more susceptible to illnesses like pneumonia, which has a greater lethal potential than normal due to the dangerously slow and shallow breathing heroin use induces.

If someone is instead regularly injecting heroin intravenously, it opens them to an even wider array of physical damage to the body, including blood clots, inflammation of the valves and lining of the heart, collapsed veins, and more. Injecting heroin also leaves users vulnerable to bloodborne illnesses that are unrelated to the drug itself but caused by sharing needles, such as hepatitis and HIV or AIDS.

Many users will attempt to avoid these problems by snorting heroin instead, but this just creates another avenue for heroin to deteriorate an individual’s body. The effects of snorting heroin can range from chronic sinusitis and nosebleeds to a total loss of sense of smell, perforation of the nasal septum, and even a collapse of the nasal cavity.

Heroin abuse has the power to take an otherwise perfectly healthy person and leave them with severe health problems and potential diseases. Overdosing on heroin is obviously a serious danger that should not be hand-waved away, but it is also vitally important that people are aware of the long-term effects of heroin and how regular abuse can ruin your body and mind without ever once overdosing.

Find Freedom from Addiction at the Palm Beach Institute

There are many options available for those in need of treatment for heroin dependency. However, it’s important for each individual to receive treatment in a program that effectively addresses each of their needs.

If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction and would like a free consultation and assessment, call the Palm Beach Institute at 855-960-5456 or contact us online. We are available anytime, day or night, to help anyone in need begin their journey back to a life of happiness and health.



Alyssa Harbina
Content Writer

Alyssa has been working in the addiction treatment field for three years, and has worked with Delphi Behavioral Health for a year and a half. Throughout most of her life, she’s dabbled in creative writing. Now she’s able to combine her passion for writing with her desire to help addicts and alcoholics struggling with the disease of addiction.

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  • I have been clean now for almost 3 years and I have no real medical issues but my question I guess is does it effect your memory and if so what can I do or who do I talk to because ever since I quit my memory is so bad my dad brought it to my attention and it kind of scares me a little bit

  • I’ve been clean for over ten years, but for the grace of God I escaped catching HIV, but I do have hepatitis C which I took medication for and I am now undetectable, I truly am not who I could be, but I am not what I used to be.

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