Causes & Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Since 1957, Azure Acres Treatment Center has given hope to individuals struggling with heroin addiction and its lasting effects. Azure Acres provides residents high-quality alcohol and drug abuse treatment near Santa Rosa, California.

Understanding Heroin

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

Heroin is an exceptionally addictive opioid that is powerful and can render devastating effects for the individuals who abuse it. Otherwise known as tar, horse, or smack, heroin is a synthesized version of morphine, which is a drug that can be found within the opium poppy plant. When an individual takes heroin, either through smoking, snorting, or injecting it, it turns back into morphine. When it converts this way, heroin is able to interact with receptors in the brain that are linked to pleasure and pain, as well as processes like heart rate and breathing.

Heroin abuse puts individuals at risk for serious immediate and long-term damage, including addiction and overdose. The continued abuse of heroin and the development of heroin use disorder can perpetuate damage to an individual’s social, psychological, and physical wellbeing.

It can be terribly challenging for an individual to defeat an addiction to heroin without the help of a professional. However, there are many forms of treatment that can help individuals end their dependence on heroin and begin living happier, healthier, and more productive lives.


Heroin addiction statistics

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH), heroin abuse has been continually rising amongst adults within the United States, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25. Roughly 2% of adults within America have abused heroin at least one time in their lives, and about 150,000 individuals abuse this substance for the first time each year. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the amount of people in the country who met criteria for heroin use disorder increased over 100% within a recent 10-year period, increasing from 214,000 in 2002 to 467,000 in 2012. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that there has been a 500% rise in heroin overdose deaths between 2001 and 2013.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

Abusing heroin and developing heroin use disorder can be impacted by a number of causes and risk factors, such as:

Genetic: Numerous studies, including those that have focused on twins and adopted children, suggest that one’s genetics can influence the development of heroin use disorder. Impulsivity, an inheritable trait, has been connected to the risk factor associated with substance use disorders like heroin use disorder.

Environmental: Accessibility to heroin and/or socializing with those who abuse it are common environmental contributors to heroin use disorder. Other environmental factors can include high levels of stress and low socioeconomic status.

Risk Factors:

  • Impulsivity or having a novelty seeking personality
  • Access to heroin
  • Gender (men are more likely to abuse heroin)
  • Age (heroin abuse most commonly starts during late teens or early 20s)
  • Prior substance abuse
  • Poor stress-management skills
  • Family or personal history of mental illness
  • Family history of substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

Below are some of the many signs and symptoms of heroin abuse that might show that an individual is struggling with heroin use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Stopping or ceasing participation in specific activities
  • Possessing hypodermic needles, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia
  • Lying or being deceitful about whereabouts and/or activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Constricted pupils
  • Itchiness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Sensation of heaviness in arms and legs
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Watery eyes
  • Scabs, sores, and/or abscesses
  • Runny nose

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Impaired judgment
  • Problems focusing or thinking clearly

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Severe mood swings
  • Anxiety


Effects of heroin addiction

Continual untreated heroin abuse can lead to a number of dangerous outcomes, both because of the damage caused by the heroin itself and the impact that it can have on decision-making skills. Below are some of the many upsetting effects of continued heroin abuse:

  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Financial ruin
  • Diseases of the kidneys and liver
  • Viral infections, including hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • Academic failure and expulsion
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Viral infections, including hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Family discord
  • Strained or ruined relationships

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

Those who have developed heroin use disorder are at a much higher risk for also experiencing the below listed co-occurring disorders:

  • Other substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Withdrawal & Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal and overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: When an individual has grown dependent on heroin and tries to stop or control his or her use, he or she will likely go through withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal, which can make it challenging to defeat heroin use disorder without the help of professionals, can begin within hours after the last use. Below are some of the most common symptoms of heroin withdrawal:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Other flu-like symptoms
  • Dysphoria
  • Strong cravings for heroin
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Anhedonia
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

Effects of heroin overdose: When an individual abuses heroin, he or she is at risk for an overdose, which can be fatal. Anyone who shows the following symptoms after abusing heroin should obtain immediate medical attention:

  • Irregular breathing
  • Significant drop in blood pressure
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Blue tinge around mouth or fingertips

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I have been in and out of treatment for years and could not remain sober for more than a couple years sometimes no more than 60 days. I attended groups and one on one therapy with my counselor there and this time something magical happened for me there. Azure Acres saved my life -- check this place out if you are looking for treatment!

– Former Patient