Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use on the Body and Mind

Last Updated: Nov 15th 2022

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Each year, more than 170,000 people in the United States try heroin for the first time. 

The opioid crisis has and will continue to affect the lives of thousands. But these numbers don’t even count the friends and families who suffer while watching their loved one battle their addiction disorder.

While the symptoms of heroin abuse begin with poor personal hygiene, the long-term effects of heroin use are much more dangerous. Before you or a loved one begins to experience these sometimes fatal symptoms, you should seek help. 

Not sure what signs to look for? Here are the mental and physical symptoms most commonly seen in long-term heroin users.

Mental Effects of Heroin Use

Many people start using heroin to self-medicate mental disorders like depression and anxiety. While the euphoria of heroin use may seem to help these conditions at first, the long-term effects of heroin use, actually make the symptoms of a mental disorder worse. 

That’s because chronic heroin use has been shown to cause damage to white matter in the brain. 

White matter is the tissue that contains neurons and axons, which are both vital to healthy brain function. When these cells are damaged or destroyed in heroin addiction, they are extremely slow to recover. 

Meanwhile, a heroin user will experience problems with:

  • impulse control
  • processing and responding to stress
  • decision making
  • processing information
  • learning new information

Heroin cravings, tolerance, and addiction are also due to the mental effects of heroin abuse.

That’s because of the neurotransmitter, Dopamine. Dopamine is the way the brain reinforces or rewards and encourages a behavior. When people use heroin, a cascade of Dopamine is released, making them feel euphoria.

The euphoric effects of Dopamine reinforce heroin-taking behavior. This leads the user to crave heroin and feel like they need more heroin to live.

After administering heroin over and over, users develop a tolerance to heroin. This tolerance means they need to take more heroin to feel the same effects they did that first time. When heroin users experience cravings and tolerance, they have developed an addiction disorder. 

The most frightening fact about heroin use is that, while tolerance decreases over time, cravings for heroin may never go away. Those who seek help, though, have a better chance of quitting heroin for good.

Mental Symptoms of Withdrawal

Withdrawal occurs when a heroin addict stops using. In long-term users, these symptoms typically show up 2-3 days after cessation of use. Users who already have a mental health condition may experience exacerbated symptoms of their disorder during withdrawal.

The psychological symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • severe depression
  • feelings of emptiness
  • suicidal ideation or attempts
  • anxiety
  • panic attacks
  • insomnia

These symptoms eventually cease. Yet the pain inflicted on family and friends by suicidal behaviors may last an entire lifetime.

Physical Signs of Heroin Use

The symptoms of heroin use can damage a person’s body just as much as they damage the mind. 

Facial appearance can drastically change. Symptoms like swollen gums, damaged teeth, and skin abscesses can make a user virtually unrecognizable to family and friends. 

But that’s only the beginning. 

The long-term effects of heroin use include chronic constipation and severe stomach cramping. Heroin addicts experience poor sex drive and men often develop irreversible erectile dysfunction. Women often report irregular or stopped menstrual cycles, which may affect their ability to have children. 

The way the user administers heroin to the bloodstream leads to different symptoms as well. 

Snorting causes damage to the nasal lining and the septum. Smoking leads to lung infection, pneumonia, and even cancer of the mouth, throat, and lung. Intravenous methods lead to collapsed veins, infections of the heart lining and valves, as well as heart disease. 

More severe physical symptoms of heroin use are:

  • liver and kidney disease
  • arthritis
  • HIV
  • Hepatitis

The scariest symptom of all, however, has to be death. More than 15,000 Americans die each year from a heroin overdose.

There is a common misconception that heroin overdose only occurs in individuals with low heroin tolerance. The truth is that any heroin user could die at any time. Infected needles, tainted supply, or even extremely pure supply are all known causes of a heroin overdose. 

Physical Symptoms of Withdrawal

Long-term heroin use also causes physical symptoms of withdrawal after cessation. These flu-like symptoms are often associated with continued use of heroin even after heroin tolerance makes it difficult to experience the euphoric effects.

Physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:

  • restlessness
  • muscle and bone pain
  • insomnia
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes
  • goosebumps
  • involuntary leg movements

While these symptoms usually go away after 7-10 days, some long-term heroin users experience symptoms for a month or longer. 

Treatment for the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

The long-term effects of heroin use can be devastating not only to the user but also to their friends and family. The drug-seeking behaviors heroin users participate in often cause tension and conflict in relationships. Meanwhile, loved ones are devastated watching the user suffer from their addiction disorder. 

The good news is there is something you can do. 

Medication-assisted therapy has been shown to help with the mental effects of heroin as well as the physical signs of heroin use. Therapy helps to improve impulsive behaviors while medication decreases the symptoms of withdrawal. 

A treatment center is a great option for many heroin users since rehabilitation clinics like 1st Step offer services that are handcrafted for individual needs and goals for recovery. Patients are supported by professionals and have a community of patients to share their experience. 

If you or a loved one is ready to seek help, call (855) 425-4846 or contact us for more information about our rehab program. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.