Heroin Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Rolling Hills Hospital helps individuals struggling with heroin addiction build a strong foundation for long-term recovery. Serving Ada, near Oklahoma City, Rolling Hills Hospital is the premier provider of mental health & addiction treatment for adolescents, adults & seniors.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin and substance abuse

Heroin is a highly addictive and extremely destructive substance. Derived from morphine, a highly potent prescription pain medication, heroin is an illicit drug that inhibits an individual’s ability to experience pain while simultaneously inducing feelings of euphoria. Due to its ability to rapidly cross the blood-brain barrier, the high that this drug elicits occurs almost immediately, making it especially appealing to users. This high not only includes feelings of euphoria, but also brings about immense feelings of relaxation and a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings. However, while many view this experience as being extremely pleasurable, once the high wears off, a person can suffer from intense drowsiness, clouded mental functioning, and improper heart functioning. In order to prevent such adverse effects, individuals will most often use again in order to maintain a consistent high. The longer that a person continues to use this substance, the higher his or her tolerance will become, leading to the need to use greater quantities of the drug. Prolonged heroin use can lead to devastating health risks and, when left untreated, can ultimately result in overdose or, sadly, even death.


Heroin addiction statistics

Studies have concluded than estimated 9.2 million people chronically use heroin throughout the world. In the United States alone, opiate use, predominantly heroin use, accounts for 18% of the population who receive treatment for drug addictions. Additionally, research has shown that men are twice as likely to struggle with an addiction to heroin as women are.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

Research has indicated that the reasons behind the development of heroin abuse and addiction are the result of a combination of factors, as described in the following:

Genetic: The level of risk at which a person is to developing an addiction to heroin is believed to be due in part to genetics. Studies have shown that people who have family members who battle addictions are more likely to struggle with addictive tendencies themselves.

Physical: The chronic use of heroin causes the communication system within one’s brain to become disturbed, resulting in significant disruption in the way that the brain’s nerve cells send, receive, and process information. These changes ultimately taint a person’s self-control, hindering his or her ability to put an end to his or her substance use.

Environmental: Environmental factors can play a significant role in the onset of heroin abuse and addiction. People who are immersed in an environment where drug use is common are more vulnerable to beginning to use drugs themselves, as it is viewed as being an acceptable behavior. Additionally, being the victim of abuse or experiencing traumas can render a person susceptible to beginning to use substances like heroin as it can be seen as a way to numb the presence of negative emotions that resulted from such experiences.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Personal history of abusing other substances
  • Personal and/or family history of mental illness
  • Experiencing chronic high levels of stress
  • Peer pressure
  • Exposure to violence and crime
  • History of experiencing trauma
  • Level of ease in gaining access to the substance
  • Low self-esteem

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

The signs that can indicate that a person is using heroin will vary depending on the age of the person, the amount that he or she is using, the frequency in which he or she is using, and the length of time during which he or she has been using. Examples of various symptoms that may be present can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Sudden, sporadic bursts of hyperactivity
  • Slurred speech
  • Withdrawing from family and friends / completely isolating oneself
  • Picking at skin
  • Changes in friends
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, regardless of the weather, in an attempt to hide injection sites or track marks
  • Disregard for personal appearance
  • Inability to adhere to responsibilities
  • Frequent absences from work or school
  • Increased need for sleep

Physical symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dry mouth
  • Impaired vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Scabs or bruises on the skin
  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Persistent itching
  • Changes in sleeping patterns

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Inability to control impulses
  • Disorientation
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Alternation between wakeful and drowsy states of consciousness
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Increased depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Consistently oscillating moods
  • Feelings of hostility
  • Loss of interest in things once interested in
  • Lack of self-control


Effects of heroin addiction

When left untreated, the long-term effects that an addiction to heroin can impose on a person’s life can be devastating, dangerous, and life-threatening. Such effects can include:

  • Scholastic or occupational failure
  • Unemployment
  • Dropping out of, or being expelled from, school
  • Homelessness
  • Financial strain
  • Interaction with the legal system, including incarceration
  • Relationship discord
  • Contracting infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis
  • Heart attack / stroke / seizures
  • Irreversible cognitive impairment
  • Clogged blood vessels, leading to vital organ damage
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Participating in self-injurious behaviors
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for an addiction to heroin to occur alongside a number of different mental health disorders. In fact, some individuals will begin using heroin as an unconscious means of self-medicating the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness. Some of the most common disorders known to co-exist with heroin abuse and addiction include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal and overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: Typically occurring between 6 and 24 hours following one’s last use, and reaching a peak between 48 and 72 hours, the effects of heroin withdrawal can include the following:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Chills
  • Excessive sweating
  • Onset of severe flu-like symptoms
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Severe abdominal cramping
  • Excessive and unpleasant feelings of jitteriness and restless

Effects of heroin overdose: When a person ingests more heroin than his or her body is capable of metabolizing, or if the purity level is greater than that which the addict is accustomed to, he or she is at an increased risk of overdosing. With death being the most severe consequence of overdosing, there are additional effects that can occur as well, including:

  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Discoloration of the tongue
  • Lips turning blue
  • Unconsciousness / unresponsiveness
  • Weakened pulse
  • Violent vomiting
  • Slow, shallow, labored breathing
  • Delirium
  • Hypotension
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Coma

A heroin overdose should be viewed as a medical emergency and treatment should be sought immediately so as to prevent fatal consequences.

I couldn't ask for better help when I needed it most and I will forever be thankful to the treatment team.

– Former Patient