Heroin is notorious for its highly addictive nature and significant side effects. The fact that it’s only available in illegal form means that on top of the standard opioid effects, it can have any number of additional impacts on the human body and brain due to the fact that it’s always “cut” with other substances. This means that drug dealers add in other ingredients to each batch of heroin, such as powdered milk or chalk, to make it seem like there’s more in every sale than there really is. In some cases, additional intoxicants like cocaine or ground-up prescription medications are added to heroin.
The primary effects of heroin are a euphoric rush followed by warm feelings and flushing, sedation, lethargy, and a heavy sensation in the limbs. Users often frequently nod off and wake up many times while high. In addition to this, the powerful opiate in heroin can produce several unpleasant side effects.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dry mouth
- Itchy skin
- Sensitivity to light
- Lowered body temperature
- Slowed heart rate and respiration
These symptoms tend to wear off soon after the last dose of heroin has worn off. However, a higher dose than a person can handle – known as an overdose – can result in someone’s heart and breathing rate to slow to the point of death. If a person afflicted by overdose survives, the individual can sustain irreversible brain damage. Heroin overdose death rates have been spiking in recent years, reaching over 10,000 in 2014. This is six times the number of deaths from the drug in 2001.
Even if an addicted individual manages to avoid overdose, there are many long-term health effects that plague chronic heroin users, both direct and indirect. Direct long-term effects include:
- Malnutrition from lack of appetite
- Sexual side effects
- Intestinal issues from constipation
- Damaged teeth and gums
- Damaged skin from scratching
- Suppressed immune system
- Overall weakness
During recovery from heroin addiction, a person’s appetite and strength tend to recover quickly, and sleep cycles can begin to recover once withdrawal symptoms subside. However, damage to teeth, skin, intestines, and various health problems from malnutrition can be permanent. Heroin is also hard on the liver and kidneys as they attempt to process large amounts of the drug and whatever substances it’s mixed with on a regular basis.
Additionally, long-term sleep problems and alterations to the brain can have psychological effects, including depression. Some long-term users report anhedonia after quitting – a condition in which a person is unable to feel emotional pleasure.
There are also many risks associated with intravenous use of drugs, which is a common method of heroin use. Frequent use of needles by drug users often leads to infection, especially since heroin users tend to have weakened immune systems. If untreated, these infections can lead to serious problems and even require amputation if they become severe enough. Both infection and various particles in a heroin solution can weaken the heart muscles, leading to heart failure.
Of course, needle sharing – a common practice among heroin users – creates a high risk of contracting dangerous diseases such as HIV or hepatitis C. The latter can be cured after a long period of expensive treatments, but HIV still has no cure.
The potential negative effects of heroin, both short-term and long-term, outweigh those of almost any other drug. The unpredictable nature of a batch of heroin means that users can never know exactly what to expect. Laced batches of heroin have been known to cause multiple overdose deaths at a time. Of all the drugs available, heroin is undoubtedly one of the riskiest.