People who use heroin know of the effects that this opiate has throughout the body, but the effects on their brains might not be so well understood. 

Heroin is a central nervous system depressant that, when snorted, injected, or smoked, enters the body and attaches itself to opioid receptors that work to alter your brain’s reward system. You might get a rush of euphoria when you first use heroin, as it attaches to cells that impact pleasure and pain.

This Schedule 1 drug is highly addictive, and while it gives you many short-term physical side effects, it also has a long-lasting impact on your brain’s chemistry and ability to function.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid that is created when morphine is taken from the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. This drug needs a warmer climate to thrive in, so it’s often grown in places like Colombia, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Southwest Asia. 

Heroin can look like a white or brown powder, or it can be black and sticky, which is known as black tar heroin. No matter the kind or form of heroin you find, it will have lasting effects that are hazardous to the longevity of your life.

Signs of Heroin Use

It’s easy to tell whenever someone isn’t really acting like themselves. If you suspect that a loved one might be using a drug like heroin, there are some signs that you could look at. 

Often it is hard for someone who uses heroin to speak up about their struggles because, 1. they might not necessarily want to stop using, and 2. It can be extremely scary to admit that you need help.

If you notice some of the following signs, it might be time to talk to them about what you can do to support them:

  • Depression and euphoria; severe mood swings
  • Hostility, agitation, restlessness, and irritability towards others
  • Possession of burned tools, like needles, spoons, and syringes
  • Missing shoelaces or belts
  • Wearing long pants and shirts during warmer weather
  • Extreme itching and scabbing of the skin
  • Chills, goosebumps, or sweats
  • Regular nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Track marks on their arms and legs

How Heroin Affects Your Brain

Your brain naturally produces and releases opioid chemicals that help to relieve pain. They aren’t going to be strong enough to help stop chronic pains but these bursts of opioid chemicals when you’re in pain help to take some of the discomforts away. 

Heroin is the stronger version of these opioid neurotransmitters. When it binds to these receptors, it releases a surge of dopamine that helps to calm you and make you feel better. 

Once your brain has gotten a slight taste for this influx of happiness, it becomes harder for your brain to release natural opioid chemicals, making it essential (to your brain) that you consume more drugs to achieve this feeling again.

Short-Term Effects

Shortly after using heroin, the main thing you will notice is how you physically feel. You may feel warmth under your skin or heavy in your arms and legs. Some short-term effects of heroin on your brain are:

  • Drowsiness and fogged memory: For several hours after using, you might be quite drowsy and tired. You might also struggle with some mental clearness which can feel like brain fog.
  • Slowed breathing: This change in respiration can be extremely dangerous, as if there is a lack of oxygen getting to the brain, it could lead to severe brain damage.
  • Depletes attention: Constant usage of heroin can easily lead you to be very inattentive. You might struggle with paying attention or participating in conversations as you cannot listen to what they are saying.
  • Confusion: When you use heroin, you won’t be coherent. It might be difficult to converse with others, and you might not understand what is happening.  

Long-Term Effects

When you use heroin for a long period of time, it eventually begins to take a toll on your overall well-being. 

Long-term effects of heroin include: 

  • Blood clots
  • Lung infections like tuberculosis or pneumonia
  • Collapsed veins and abscesses
  • Damage to the blood vessels that lead to the liver, lungs, and kidneys
  • Infectious diseases such as hepatitis or HIV
  • Fatal overdose

Issues in the brain and cognition can also be a long-term effect of heroin abuse. Lasting effects on your brain of using heroin are:

  • Cognitive impairment: When you have used heroin long-term, harmful proteins begin to build up inside the brain.
    Heroin use creates inflammation in the brain which can cause structural changes that will cause you to experience mental decline, memory loss, confusion, and personality changes similar to those in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Deteriorates white matter: White matter, which is essential in communication between the brain and spinal cord, starts to deteriorate when you use heroin for extended periods of time.
    This then impacts your memory and focus negatively and can make things a lot harder to function. Less white matter in your brain can make regulating your emotions, behavior, and stress very difficult.
  • Long-term imbalances: The physical shape of your brain will alter with long-term heroin use. This throws off many functioning systems in your body. Neurological imbalance can cause strokes, infections, dementia, and seizures. 
  • Respiratory suppression: This is when your brain is not getting enough oxygen, leading to brain damage

Treatment For Heroin Overdose

There are ways to help you and your loved one in the case of an overdose. Understanding how to react when an overdose is happening around you could help save a life. 

Having Naloxone, an opioid receptor antagonist medication that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose. Narcan is fast-acting and works by binding to opioid receptors in your brain, preventing heroin from activating them.

Narcan is great to have, but heroin addiction treatment is going to be what truly saves you. Getting help at a recovery center will provide you with the best treatment and set you up for success further down the line of your recovery. 

Getting Help At Soba Recovery

If you or a loved one are struggling with heroin addiction, you are not alone. You must know that there are ways for you to get help. Soba Recovery Centers, located in Mesa, Arizona, and San Antonio, Texas, are here to make things easier. 

The hardest step in your recovery is going to be the one where you ask for help. 

Soba Recovery offers many different addiction treatment programs and services for every kind of individual. Our treatment is meant to be personalized to you and your substance use to make sure you get the help you need. 

Everyone deals with their substance use differently, so it makes sense that treatments for people will vary. We work with you to provide the best treatment possible for you, so if you need to ask a few questions first, just reach out to a Soba representative!

We offer inpatient and outpatient services for our patients at Soba Recovery. You are welcome to stay with us for as long as you need at our inpatient to become a healthier you and those who struggle with using heroin. It can be difficult to deal with the effects of withdrawal, and we offer detoxification services so that you don’t have to go through it alone. 

Getting help can mean you have a chance at living the life that you deserve. 



Heroin Drugfacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse

How Does Heroin Affect The Brain?: Heroin’s Effects On The Mind | American Addiction Centers

Brain White Matter Integrity In Heroin Addicts During Methadone Maintenance Treatment Is Related To Relapse Propensity | NCBI

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