Heroin Use: Signs, Symptoms & Effects To Know

Substance abuse, no matter the drug, is a slippery slope that can lead to addiction before you even realize what is happening. The risk of addiction is particularly true of heroin use. 

Highly addictive with tremendous health and social implications for the user, heroin is classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency for a good reason. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin addiction, understanding the signs, symptoms, and effects could mean the difference between life and death. Here, we’ll walk you through some typical physical, psychological, and behavioral changes associated with heroin addiction. The more you know, the better you can help someone in a time of great need.

Physical Signs of Heroin Use

If you have a loved one who is struggling with substance abuse, knowledge is power. The more you recognize signs and symptoms of heroin use, the more effectively you can offer help and ensure their safety.

Physical Signs of Active Use

Specific side effects may be observed physically in the hours following heroin use. Typically, these symptoms last for 3 to 5 hours and, while they may present differently in different individuals, you will likely witness or experience some of the following.

  • Vomiting or upset stomach
  • Pupils become constricted
  • Loss of motor control may result in clumsiness or physical disorientation. It can be dangerous to move around or try to go anywhere during this time.
  • The body may become itchy, and involuntary scratching may occur.
  • The user may appear to nod in and out of consciousness.

If you are with someone you suspect may have recently used heroin, take careful note of their breathing and pulse. If either slow significantly, this could be a sign of overdose. 

Physical Signs of Withdrawal

Other physical signs may be seen after time has passed since someone last used heroin. If someone has developed a heroin dependence, they may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms as soon as 6 to 12 hours after their most recent use. Some of those symptoms include the following.

  • Severe stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting are common physical side effects of heroin withdrawal
  • Many people going through withdrawal develop a fever and experience feelings of weakness
  • Sweating and general discomfort all over the body may occur.

These flu-like symptoms of opioid withdrawal can last for a few days, typically peaking in intensity 2-3 days after the most recent heroin use.  

Psychological Signs of Heroin Use

Similar to physical signs, heroin use has a slew of psychological and behavioral indicators that you should learn to recognize.

Psychological Signs of Active Use

  • Speech slows down or may become garbled and difficult to understand
  • A sense of euphoria may take over, followed by drowsiness. This change in emotion may affect the person’s overall demeanor, causing them to feel distant or clouded over.
  • While not as common, sometimes the person may appear anxious or stressed

Psychological Signs of Withdrawal

Psychological and behavioral signs become notably more visible when a person enters the withdrawal phase. Beginning 6-12 hours following the most recent heroin use, some common symptoms include:

  • Depression and anxiety may creep in and affect the person’s overall demeanor and mood.
  • The person may present signs of dysphoria, meaning they seem out of touch with their body and identity.
  • Insomnia can develop, making it incredibly challenging for the person to rest. This may lead to irritability and constant exhaustion.
  • The person may start to experience severe drug cravings and fixate on when they will use heroin again.

Effects of Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction affects the body, mind, and life both in the short and long term. Here are some of the critical effects you should be aware of as you support yourself or a loved one towards recovery.

Short-Term Effects

Physical Dependence 

It doesn’t take long to become addicted to opioids. Research shows that, with prescription opioid medication, dependence can begin in only 3-5 days and the risks of addiction continue to grow with each additional day of use. Heroin addiction is no different. 

In a short amount of time, your body may start becoming dependent on heroin, pushing you into unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms if you cease using opiates.  

Poor Performance in Work or School

As addiction develops, it is common for a lack of motivation in professional, educational, and social obligations to set in. As fixation on drug use grows, other vital elements of life may fade into the background and seem insignificant.

This can have a rapid negative impact on performance at work, in school, or in interpersonal relationships. Activities that once brought you joy may now seem pointless, and you may lose motivation to participate. This can lead to loss of employment, failing grades, and the alienation of people who care about you.

Secrecy and Suspicious Behavior 

It is also common for people struggling with heroin addiction, especially early on, to hide their behavior from people around them. 

People with substance use disorder may start making up strange excuses for missing obligations or lying about their whereabouts or who they are spending time with. If habits change out of nowhere and a person becomes more withdrawn, this could be a sign of substance abuse.

Fixation on Paraphernalia and Drug Culture 

Often, people who have newly become dependent on heroin will begin collecting paraphernalia for drug use. This can include balloons, baggies, pipes made of metal or glass, aluminum foil, and syringes.

Long-Term Effects

Increased Tolerance for Opioids 

The longer that someone continues to use heroin, the riskier the behavior becomes. The person struggling with addiction will need to ingest larger doses to feel the same euphoric effects. As tolerance for the drug builds up, individuals may spend more money on heroin and put their health in greater danger to obtain drugs. 

Physical Deterioration 

The longer that drug use persists, the greater the physical effects on the body. Frequent intravenous users of heroin may be riddled with track marks and could potentially develop collapsed veins and skin abscesses. Some may develop arthritis or rheumatologic problems.

People may also experience chronic constipation, respiratory problems, and irregularities in menstrual cycles. Loss of color in the skin, teeth deterioration, and easy scarring of skin are all common symptoms of sustained heroin use. Substance use causes visible signs of early aging and often contributes to rapid, unhealthy weight loss.

Loss of Community and Family

Studies have shown that parental substance use is a prominent reason for removing children from their homes and placement in out-of-home care systems. Data shows an increase of over 20% from 2010 to 2019 alone.

This sobering statistic demonstrates the grave consequences sustained heroin use can have on a family unit. Prolonged heroin use also can chip away at a person’s sense of community as they become increasingly isolated. The more time you spend searching for your next fix and trying to hide your habits from the people that love you, the less connected you will be to the world outside of substance use.

As such, the long-term effects are felt by the person struggling with addiction and their communities and children for years to come.

Financial Struggle

Heroin is an expensive addiction to sustain. The substances themselves are costly, and the euphoria experienced is relatively short-lived. To stave off cravings, people will need to continue buying more and more. 

Simultaneously, heroin addiction can become all-consuming and cause a lack of motivation, resulting in loss of employment and income. Heroin addiction both demands money to sustain and often eliminates a person’s source of financial security, making it a vicious double-edged sword that can lead to severe financial struggle.

Greater Risk of Death

In 2019, the death rate due to heroin overdose in the US was five times higher than in 2010.

While this steep incline is a startling sign that the opioid epidemic continues to worsen, we believe that a single, preventable death due to a heroin overdose is a tragedy unto itself. It is an unavoidable truth that heroin use, especially over the long term, increases your chance of an overdose-related death.

In addition to an increased risk of death from heroin use itself, if someone injects heroin, they are at serious risk of long-term infections and diseases, such as HIV, Hepatitis C and B, and bacterial infections. If left untreated, these factors can also increase the risk of death. 


Heroin addiction is a daunting battle to face. At Master Center, we do our part by supporting each individual who turns to us for help with compassionate and effective care. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, you are not alone. Contact Master Center today and begin the journey towards healing.

We pride ourselves on evaluating each patient as an individual, not a number. A holistic approach increases the chances of recovery in the long term.

Reach out today!