Heroin is known around the world as one of the most addictive and dangerous illegal drugs; since it was first produced and brought onto the market at the end of the 19th century. It has been responsible for the destruction and premature end of countless lives. Heroin’s effects take hold very quickly (intravenous use in particular has an almost instantaneous effect) and comprise a profound feeling of relaxed euphoria, wellbeing and contentment which typically persists for up to a couple of hours (though the peak effects do not usually last that long.

Yet, despite this grim record, the terrifying reputation it has engendered, and the efforts of governments and judiciaries in every corner of the planet to restrict and discourage its use (including the imposition of extremely severe criminal penalties), each year the allure of this “demon drug” proves too strong to resist for many thousands of users. A tragically large proportion of them will go on to develop addictions with all the terrible consequences this entails. If you or someone close to you is struggling with a heroin addiction, don’t delay: contact an addiction specialist today as the first step along the path to recovery.


What Is Heroin?

“Heroin” is the brand name given in 1895 by German pharmaceutical company Bayer to diamorphine, an opioid (a drug derived from the opium poppy) made from morphine (which was already widely available as a medicine, as well as a substance of recreational use and abuse).

Usually found as a powder (commonly brown, although especially pure heroin is often white), heroin is often injected (it is the substance most commonly associated in the public eye with intravenous drug abuse) although it can also be smoked, snorted or inhaled (with these methods usually being deployed by newcomers to the drug).

Heroin consumption

Usually causes pronounced feelings of (often enjoyable) drowsiness which can tip over into sleep or, at higher doses, unconsciousness.

Heroin use poses a broad range of potentially catastrophic health risks for the user which can include death by overdose. It is also notorious for being one of the most addictive drugs on the market, creating both physical and psychological addiction (often after a comparatively small number of doses) and, once dependence has been established, associated with significant and often extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Because of the high risk of addiction and resultant damage to a person’s wellbeing and life circumstances, and the danger to health posed by even one dose of heroin, authorities the world over invariably class the drug within the most serious categories provided for by their respective legal frameworks, with the most severe penalties for possession and supply.

How Does Heroin Affect the Body?

When heroin is consumed, it is broken down in the brain into morphine which binds to specific receptors resulting in euphoric, analgesic and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects; simultaneously, it causes a release of histamine, producing feelings of itchiness in the user.

Repeated use results quite quickly in the development of tolerance in the user (whereby their system gets used to certain dosages of heroin and requires more than previously in order to produce the same “high”) and in dependency, which occurs when the user’s brain chemistry adjusts to deal with the presence of heroin in the system.

When that presence is no longer felt, the body then reacts to the absence in the form of a series of potentially very unpleasant responses known as withdrawal symptoms (see below) until the readjustment to the previous state of normality is complete. If too much heroin is consumed at once for the user’s system to cope with, overdose may result (see below) which can prove fatal, even after only one dose.

Heroin Addiction Causes

What causes a person to develop a substance addiction remains a matter of debate within the medical community. Clearly, it is impossible to get addicted to something if it is never consumed in the first place, but amongst those people who do take addictive substances there is a great range of responses:

Some people can engage in repeated substance use over a prolonged period without developing psychological addictions (for details of the difference between psychological and physical addiction, see below) while others can find themselves addicted after a very few doses.

It is commonly accepted that genes and environment are both at play – with certain environmental factors such as exposure to substance abuse during childhood being a trigger for later addiction.

As heroin is a strongly physically addictive substance, however, even people who may not be especially susceptible to psychological addiction can become addicts fairly quickly if they engage in repeated heroin abuse within a short period of time – especially if the user has been injecting heroin (a good rule of thumb is that most aspects of heroin abuse and addiction, from the strength of the “high” to the severity of withdrawal symptoms, are intensified by intravenous consumption).

The Difference Between Abuse & Addiction

It is possible to consume heroin – even intravenously, the above caveat notwithstanding – without developing an addiction. Heroin abuse occurs when someone consumes heroin in quantities or in ways and/or circumstances which cause damage to themselves and/or others – when recreational use passes the point of being “fun”. Addiction is the state of desiring – often obsessively – to take heroin regardless of the negative repercussions of doing so, and the feeling that the addict cannot feel “normal” or achieve a state of wellbeing without consuming the drug. In the case of heroin, this can also be accompanied by a physical dependency upon the drug which means that cessation of use will result in the onset of withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction to heroin is the state of craving the drug constantly despite an awareness of the negative consequences of taking the drug. Someone who has developed a psychological addiction will prioritise taking heroin above most if not all other things and their life will typically revolve around the drug, with its procurement and consumption taking the place of other life goals.

Although a physical addiction/dependence will diminish and disappear following a period of detoxification, it is the psychological addiction which lingers and which may be responsible for a recovering addict relapsing and recommencing heroin consumption even after a long period “clean”.

Psychological addiction is far more pernicious than its physical equivalent and usually requires therapy – sometimes for long periods – to overcome completely.

Heroin Use vs Heroin Abuse/Addiction

It is possible to use heroin recreationally without developing an addiction (though it is such a powerfully addictive substance that even occasional recreational use very frequently leads to addiction before long).

Recreational heroin use becomes abuse when it becomes damaging: when dosages or the method of consuming heroin risk harm to the user, or other aspects of its consumption pose a threat to the wellbeing of others. Similarly, abuse does not always lead to addiction, but the risk is high and the path from use through abuse to addition is often a short one.

Some of the symptoms of addiction are:

Heroin Overdose

As the word suggests, a heroin overdose occurs when a user consumes too much heroin for their system to handle, and they cannot cope effectively with its toxicity. Overdose can occur almost immediately after consuming the drug intravenously.

Symptoms include shallow breathing, contracted pupils and unconsciousness, which can lead to death within minutes if not treated, either directly as a result of the patient being unable to breathe sufficiently, or indirectly, for example from inhaling their vomit or hitting their head after a fall.

Even those who survive an overdose can suffer permanent brain damage as well as conditions such as oedema and rhabdomyolysis (muscular degeneration).

Heroin Overdose Treatment

Overdose is the main cause of death amongst heroin addicts and until fairly recently doctors were relatively powerless to stop its worst effects – especially if an addict was already weak and/or ill, it was often just a matter of sheer luck whether or not someone came round from an overdose.