Heroin Addiction Facts


Fields of bright, beautiful flowers might seem innocent, but if you’re looking at Asian opium poppy plants, you’re seeing the first stage of heroin. Heroin, a powerful and highly addictive drug, is made from the opium produced by the poppy plant. The opium is harvested and converted into morphine, which is then chemically processed into heroin. From flower to back alley drug abuse, heroin is a killer.

Whether you’ve come here looking for help or you’re desperate to help a loved one who may be addicted to heroin, the first step is learning everything you can about it. This article covers all you need to know about heroin, so get started with these heroin addiction facts.

Warning Signs of Heroin Abuse

Track Marks on Arms, Hands, or Feet

Unexplained Weightloss

Dirty, Unkempt Appearance

Constricted Pupils

Stealing or Borrowing Money

Lack of Interest in Hobbies

On the Street, Using Heroin is Called:


Chasing the Tiger

Dipping and Dabbing

Doing Up


Recognizing Heroin and its Paraphernalia

Most heroin is sold in powder form. The powder may be white, beige or brown. It’s usually sold in small balloons or baggies or folded up in a small piece of paper. Black tar heroin, a sticky black lump that resembles its namesake, is typically the cheapest form of heroin.

Paraphernalia associated with using
heroin includes:

  • Needles and syringes
  • Small baggies
  • Burnt spoons or tinfoil
  • Plastic pen parts or cut-up drinking straws with burn marks or powder residue on them
  • Pipes
  • Cotton balls that filter the heroin before injecting
  • Shoelaces or long, cut rubber bands for tying off the injection site

Open bag of heroin with a loaded syringe laying on a table with a burnt cooking spoon

Heroin on the Street

  • Horse, H, or Big H
  • Dope
  • Tar
  • Chiba
  • Birdie powder
  • Red chicken, chick, chickle
  • Hell dust
  • Harry, Big Harry, Harry Jones
  • Junk
  • Goods
  • Skag, scat, sack
  • Skunk
  • Smack
  • Tecata
  • Number 3, 4 or 8
  • Thunder
  • Dragon
  • Boy, or He
  • Black, black eagle, black pearl, or black tar
  • Brown or brown crystal
  • White, white girl or white boy
  • Mexican brown, Mexican mud, Mexican horse

Why People Use Heroin

For many people, using heroin is initially a way to self-medicate a mental illness like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. When you use heroin, intense euphoria floods your body and mind. It’s an indescribable feeling of pleasure and well-being that’s almost scary in its intensity. You’re invincible, and your problems seem to disappear.

Once a user experiences this high for the first time, they will want to experience it again and again, and this can quickly lead to addiction.

Why Heroin is So Addictive

No one starts out seeking an addiction to heroin. But if you develop an addiction, you’ll keep using it even though your life is falling apart all around you because of it.

Around 23 percent of people who use heroin develop an addiction to it. One reason it’s so addictive is the simple desire to keep enjoying its intense, euphoric effects. Another reason it’s so addictive is that it produces a high level of tolerance very quickly, which means that your brain gets used to it fast, and you need bigger doses to get you high.

Tolerance leads to dependence, which means that your brain now needs heroin to function properly. When you take it away, withdrawal symptoms set in. Known as “evening,” withdrawal from heroin is awful enough that most people will go right back to using just to make the misery stop.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Signs of addiction are external indicators that other people, like family members or friends, might notice.

Physical signs of heroin addiction include:

  • A dirty, unkempt appearance
  • Track marks or sores on the arms, legs, hands or feet
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants to hide needle marks
  • Weight loss
  • Runny nose
  • Constricted pupils
  • Stealing or borrowing money
  • Possession of paraphernalia

Psychological and emotional signs of heroin addiction include:

  • Lying
  • Loss of motivation
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Lack of interest in hobbies
  • Hostile behaviors
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Sleeping more
  • Mood swings

Track marks on the inside arm of a heroin addict

Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Symptoms of heroin addiction are indicators that the person with the addiction will feel.

Physical symptoms of heroin addiction include:

  • Intense cravings
  • Withdrawal symptoms that set in when use stops
  • Lying about heroin use
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Neglecting duties at home, work or school

Psychological and emotional symptoms of heroin addiction include:

  • Continuing to use heroin even though it’s causing problems in your life
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Increased anxiety or depression
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Apathy and a lack of motivation

Short-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

The short-term physical and psychological effects of heroin use include:

  • Euphoria
  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Drowsiness and nodding off
  • Lethargy
  • Heavy limbs
  • Flushed skin
  • Slowed breathing
  • A risk of coma and brain damage
  • A risk of overdose

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse

Using heroin has serious long-term effects on physical health, emotions and brain function. Long-term physical problems related to heroin use include:

  • Blood and heart valve infections
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Chronic constipation and cramps
  • Lung and respiratory problems
  • Immune system problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Problems with hormone production and balance
  • Overdose, which can happen at any time
  • Infections at injection sites
  • A high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis

Heroin changes the way the brain functions, and it causes a deterioration of white matter. Long-term psychological problems caused by heroin abuse include:

  • The inability to regulate emotions and behaviors
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Worsened mental illness, or the onset of a new mental illness

The Consequences of Using Heroin with Other Substances

Heroin is even more deadly when it’s used with other drugs, but unfortunately, it’s very common for users to combine drugs for a more intense high. The most common drugs that are used with heroin include cocaine, alcohol and benzodiazepines.

When heroin is used with cocaine, it’s called “speedballing,” and it causes an intense high. But when you’re mixing a stimulant and a depressant, it can be hard to know whether you’re approaching a deadly dose, since the effects of one drug counter the effects of the other. Speedballs are also very damaging to the body’s organs.

When heroin is mixed with alcohol or benzodiazepines, which are also sedatives, the risk of heart attack, respiratory arrest, coma and death are sky high.

Heroin Addiction Facts: The Risk of Overdose

Heroin overdoses have more than quadrupled since 1999. One major factor for overdose is that you never know what purity you’re getting when you buy heroin on the street, and your bag could be cut with any number of toxic substances.

There is no safe amount of heroin to use. Any time you smoke or shoot up, it could be your last.

A heroin overdose causes:

  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • A weak pulse
  • Shallow, difficult breathing, or no breathing at all
  • Pinpoint pupils

Naloxone is a drug that reverses the effects of a heroin overdose. The FDA has approved a hand-held naloxone injector called EVZIO that family members or users can keep on hand in case an overdose occurs. You can get EVZIO with a prescription from your doctor.

Take-home pocket-sized naloxone injector by Evzio

Heroin and the Law

Heroin is listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs are highly addictive but have no medical value. If you get busted for possession of heroin, you’re looking at jail time, a hefty fine or both.

When possession is charged as a federal offense, a first offense can get you a sentence of a year in prison or a $1,000 fine, or both. A second offense can get you two years in prison or a $2,500 fine, or both. States may also punish possession of heroin. That sentence will depend on state law.

A national push is being made to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and instead help them beat their drug addiction through treatment.

Withdrawing from Heroin

Heroin withdrawal starts around six to 12 hours after the last dose. It reaches peak intensity around day two or three and usually lasts between five and 10 days.

The symptoms of withdrawal can range from mild to severe, but even mild withdrawal symptoms can be very difficult to endure. The most common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Severe cravings
  • Cold chills
  • Body aches
  • Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

While heroin withdrawal makes you feel like you’re dying, it isn’t usually life-threatening.

Medical Detox

Medical detox is recommended for heroin withdrawal because of the high relapse rate associated with withdrawal symptoms. Medical detox is supervised by doctors who give you medications to help reduce the intensity of withdrawal and even shorten the time it takes to detox. Unfortunately, once withdrawal ends, the intense cravings don’t, and these can make ongoing recovery very difficult.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

In many cases, people addicted to heroin will choose medication-assisted treatment, also known as maintenance therapy. Instead of detoxing, certain medications are given to keep withdrawal from setting in and to keep cravings away. The most common drugs for maintenance therapy are methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.

Medication-assisted treatment lets people get their lives back together without intense cravings or fear of withdrawal symptoms leading to relapse. Research shows that maintenance therapy keeps people in treatment longer and results in lower relapse rates than detox, and it’s considered better than detox for long-term recovery.