The Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use
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The Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use

There are a number of substances to which a person can become addicted. The substance a person begins to abuse depends on a number of different factors, including the type of effects they desire stimulants or depressants — and the substances to which they actually have access. No matter which type of substance it is, there are inevitably going to be harmful, destructive effects from any substance a person chooses to recreationally and habitually abuse. On the other hand, some substances are known to be worse, more dangerous, more addictive, and more difficult to treat than others. Specifically, heroin is widely considered to be the most addictive drug there is for a number of reasons, including the effects it has on the brain and body.

According to statistics, there are nearly 25 million Americans over the age of 12 suffering from addiction, which is startling when one considers the fact that rates of heroin use and addiction are higher now than they’ve ever been. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of those in need receive any treatments for addiction, leaving the remaining 90 percent on track to remain in active addiction until the disease kills them. However, overdose is one of the many consequences of heroin addiction. The habitual use of heroin causes a number of other effects that increase in severity as an addict remains a heroin user for a longer period of time. As such, the following will describe the immediate effects of heroin in order to convey some of heroin’s more lasting effects on both the brain and the body.

The long term effects of heroin use are:

  • Decreased dental health marked by damaged teeth and gum swelling.
  • Excoriated skin from scratching.
  • Severe constipation.
  • Increased susceptibility to disease from diminished immune system.
  • Weakness and sedation.
  • Poor appetite and malnutrition.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Decrease in sexual functioning.
teen girl heroin addict

What Effects Does Heroin Have on the Brain?

Derived from the opium obtained from the opium poppy and comparable in its effects to morphine, heroin is a very potent, dangerous, semi-synthetic narcotic opioid that is known to be extremely addictive. Heroin acts on the central nervous system and brain in order to produce its main effects, which are comparable to that of depressants. When an individual administers heroin — often done intravenously with a hypodermic syringe, but the drug can also be insufflated through the sinuses and even smoked — the drug binds with the brain’s opiate receptors. The body naturally produces its own opioid-like substances, one of which is dopamine, that naturally bind with these receptors in order to alleviate pain that one might be feeling or to induce relaxation during times of stress; however, heroin is much more potent than the body’s natural opiates, which exponentially amplifies the effects.

Meanwhile, the drug also inhibits GABA, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates the production and release of dopamine and other chemicals to ensure that the body is able to use the current supply without becoming flooded. This means that there’s minimal to no regulation of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals, causing a spike that activates the reward and pleasure circuits of the brain. The activation of the brain’s pleasure center is what causes the euphoric “high” that heroin users experience when they take the drug while the activation of the reward pathway reinforces the behavior, causing an individual to associate his or her heroin use with feelings of pleasure that make him or her want to continue using heroin on a regular basis. In other words, the flooding of these areas of the brain with dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and other neurochemicals is what causes the euphoric high that also becomes a reinforced behavior.

The Consequences of Long-Term Heroin Use

Although many people associate long-term drug use with the physical and health effects, continued heroin use over an extended period of time has effects on the brain with some major implications. As mentioned above, heroin works by bonding to the brain’s opiate receptors and causing a surge in neurotransmitter production and release. As a heroin user continues using heroin frequently over time, the brain must adjust to the ever-present heroin in the body. It adjusts, or accommodates, continuous heroin by creating additional opiate receptors with which the heroin can bond. There’s an old expression that goes, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” which is essentially what the brain is doing; bombarded over and over again with high levels of heroin, the brain begins creating more places to put the heroin. This is what causes an individual’s tolerance to increase, as he or she must begin escalating dosage in order to achieve the desired effects.

Perhaps more severe are the effects that long-term heroin use has on one’s dopamine production in the brain. Since heroin triggers an increase in dopamine production and a spike in the brain’s level of dopamine and other neurochemicals, the brain stops producing dopamine on its own and begins to rely on one’s heroin use as the primary or sole source of neurochemical production. This means that in the periods between heroin dosing, an addict will begin feeling discomfort, which is a sign of withdrawal. The long-term implication of this is that the brain will be unable to regulate its own neurochemical levels.

Heroin & the Body

When a person uses heroin for a long period of time, there are a number of negative effects that result. One of the first effects is an overall decrease is wellness and a weakening of the immune system. However, with the passage of additional time, the body continues to decline. Oftentimes heroin users are so concerned with sustaining their habits that they don’t take proper care of themselves, failing to eat regularly or address even their most basic needs. The most serious potential long-term effect of heroin use is the possibility of contracting blood-borne illnesses from other intravenous drug users. For instance, it’s unfortunately common for heroin users to contract illnesses like HIV or hepatitis, which will remain a problem they must address for the rest of their lives.

Find Freedom from Addiction at the Palm Beach Institute

There are many options available for those in need of treatment for heroin addiction. 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 would like a free consultation and assessment, call the Palm Beach Institute at 855-960-5456. We are available any time, day or night, to help anyone in need begin the journey back to a life of happiness and health.

4 Responses to “The Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use”

  1. Danielle Gardner

    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

  2. William A. Washington

    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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