The long-term effects of heroin are not only damaging but often deadly.
In one long-term UCLA study, half of the participants addicted to heroin died during the 33-year study. Those death rates were up to 100 times higher than in those without heroin use disorder.
Habitually using heroin brings about changes to both the physical structure and the function of the brain. Despite, these awful problems that can occur from using a dangerous drug like heroin, there are treatment options, like Orange County rehabs to help achieve initial sobriety. However, the problem doesn’t end there, you will still have to commit to your sobriety even after leaving a treatment center, luckily, the help of aftercare programs and sober living homes can make this process easier for you.
Let’s take a closer look at the many long-term effects and side effects of heroin use and what you can do to overcome heroin addiction.
Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use
If you use heroin long-term, you can expect to encounter any of the following adverse outcomes:
- Diminished libido
- Impaired ability to control stress
- Reduced white matter in the brain
- Skin infections
- Heart infections
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Lung infections
- Chronic constipation
- Collapsed veins
- Infertility and miscarriage in women
Long-Term Heroin Effects on the Body
How heroin impacts your health hinges on many variables, including:
- Existing health status
- Length of heroin abuse
- Method of delivery
- Volume of heroin abuse
- Use of other substances
- Co-occurring mental health conditions
Even short-term heroin can affect your health, though.
While fleeting, the following common side effects of heroin use still represent a health risk:
- Rush of euphoria lasting up to 5 hours
- Trace-like state lasting up to 6 hours
- Heavy sensation in limbs
- Warm skin
- Appetite loss
- Watery eyes
- Pinprick pupils
- Slow breathing
- Reduced heart rate
- Clouded thinking
If you continue to use heroin long-term, you’ll ultimately trigger another negative health outcome: physical dependence on the drug. By this point, you will need heroin just to feel normal, and also to ward off withdrawal symptoms. Tolerance and withdrawal are the two primary markers of physical dependence.
Tolerance is a double-edged sword, too. Not only does tolerance lead to dependence over time as your body adapts to a drug, but it also causes you to use ever-increasing volumes of heroin to achieve the same effect. At the same time, the margin of risk to your health also increases, especially with regard to overdose.
When your body is accustomed to the presence of heroin, you’ll experience pronounced heroin withdrawal symptoms in its absence. Typically, withdrawal includes strong cravings for heroin, vomiting, deep muscle pain, and restlessness.
Over time and left untreated, physical dependence can lead to addiction. These two terms are not synonymous, but heroin addiction often follows in the wake of physical dependence to the opiate.
Regardless of the method of delivery, chronic use of heroin leads to many medical complications, including:
- Lung complications
- Respiratory depression
Aside from these general consequences, there are also specific adverse outcomes depending on the route of administration.
- Snorting heroin can lead to perforation of the nasal septum
- Injecting heroin long-term can lead to collapsed and scarred lungs as well as bacterial infections and soft-tissue infections
If you share needles or other drug equipment, you also run the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, both B and C. You also expose yourself to the risk of other blood-borne viruses.
The other obvious long-term effect of heroin abuse, and one that can be fatal, is heroin overdose. There has been a spike in heroin overdoses over recent years. If you or a loved one is using heroin, you should be aware of the signs of heroin overdose so you can intervene with naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, but only if administered shortly after the person begins overdosing.
As with all drugs, though, the damage heroin causes extends far beyond the physical.
Long-Term Psychological Side Effects of Heroin
The long-term psychological effects of heroin also revolve around tolerance to the drug.
One of the many inbuilt problems of using heroin to get high is that every time you use the drug, the effects diminish. As your brain adapts to the frequent influxes of opioids, it adapts and enters survival mode. At the same time, the brain responds less when the same amount of heroin is used.
The unfortunate by-product of tolerance is that many people increase their dose of heroin, eager to recreate that first soaring high that compelled them to keep using opioids like heroin. The more heroin you take, the more likely you are to become quickly physically dependent on the substance. You’ll soon start needing the drug not merely for pleasure, but even for the anticipation of pleasure.
If this cycle of heroin abuse continues, you’ll start withdrawing more and more from friends, family, and social obligations. Not only is repeated exposure to heroin strongly habit-forming, but it also changes the structure of your brain. Many of these changes cannot easily be reversed.
If you continue abusing heroin, you’ll destroy some parts of the contents of the brain in areas containing white and gray matter. As this occurs, the structure and function of the brain changes. The resulting changes to hormonal systems and neuronal systems can trigger long-term damage. You’ll find problems in the following areas:
- Decision making
- Controlling behavior
- Responding to stressful situations
With chronic heroin use, your brain is compelled to create new opioid receptors to accommodate the deluge of heroin flooding your system. This largely explains why habitual heroin users are unable to duplicate that initial mind-blowing experience of using the drug.
As time elapses, your brain will struggle to deal with the ever-increasing volume of heroin entering your system. This causes issues with dopamine production. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in the brain, typically released in response to rewarding and pleasurable experiences. The chemical hits your brain and primes the brain to seek out these same experiences to achieve the same reward.
Heroin is so powerful, though, that it will overcome your brain’s natural ability to produce dopamine, effectively hijacking your system.
What is the outlook if you find yourself abusing heroin?
Rehab for Long-Term Heroin Addiction
While heroin is undeniably damaging, treatment outcomes can be favorable if you’re prepared to put in the effort.
Therapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and mindfulness can help you to better regulate your emotions and control responses to triggers. These areas of your brain will have been overwritten by heroin use, so with psychotherapy sessions and mindfulness techniques, you can take back control.
There are also several FDA-approved medications that help reduce the intensity of both cravings for heroin and withdrawal symptoms from the drug.
As with all substance use disorders, there is a strong chance of relapse during recovery from heroin addiction, so maximize your chance of avoiding that by engaging with the right treatment program. It is perfectly possible to move from active heroin addiction to sustained recovery, but it will require hard work and, ideally, the support of a robust treatment team.