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What Are the Effects of Heroin on the Body?

5 minute read

Heroin and other opioids claim thousands of lives every year. In addition to the everyday impact heroin can have on your life and relationships, the long-term effects of heroin touch almost every system in the human body. Learn how heroin damages your health, and why substance abuse treatment and recovery are the only way out.

Effects of Heroin on the Brain

Heroin and other opioids have short-term and long-term effects on the central nervous system. One long-term effect of heroin is the way it can permanently change the brain. Taken in high doses, opioids flood the brain with dopamine, your natural “feel-good” chemical. Over time, opioid abuse begins depleting your natural supply of dopamine and your brain’s ability to produce even normal amounts of it without heroin. At this point, you’ve developed a tolerance to heroin and physical dependence on the drug. The short-term effect is to send your body into withdrawal in the absence of heroin as your central nervous system goes into overdrive to rebalance itself. The ongoing impact is the way this interferes with brain chemical production, putting you at risk for depression and anxiety symptoms.

Potential long-term effects of heroin’s impact on the brain include slowed breathing, which robs the brain of oxygen. This can result in brain damage, coma, and death. In extreme cases, such as a heroin overdose, lack of oxygen impacts future functions like vision, memory, movement, and mood.

Another long-term effect of heroin is damage to the frontal lobe of the brain, causing memory issues and problems with spatial awareness and attention. Heroin can also damage your nervous system’s response to pain, making some stimuli more painful.

Effects of Heroin on the Heart

The American Heart Association warns of several short and long-term effects of heroin and prescription opioids on the heart.

  • People who abuse heroin are twice as likely to have a heart attack than their counterparts.
  • Toxins in heroin can clog your blood vessels, which may damage your organs and cause infections.
  • Heroin slows down your heart rate, which can interfere with your ability to be physically active.
  • Chronic opioid abuse puts you at higher risk for heart failure, especially if you also abuse benzodiazepines (benzos) and have a previous heart condition.
  • Heart valve infections often result from injecting heroin.
  • Heroin abusers often have low blood pressure from dilated blood vessels. This can lead to feeling weak, fatigued, and dizzy.
  • Many heroin users have collapsed veins from repeated injection of the drug. This can affect blood flow and put you at risk for several cardiovascular conditions.

Effects of Heroin on Breathing

Abusing heroin impacts your respiratory system, increasing your risk for overdose. Opioids tell your central nervous system to slow down functions like breathing and heart rate. Large doses of heroin can slow down your breathing and heart so much that you overdose, which can cause health issues or death. Heroin can also worsen asthma symptoms and other respiratory conditions.

Effects of Heroin on the Digestive System

Heroin affects the digestive system during both active drug abuse and as symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Opioid abuse slows down the muscles involved in digestion. This can lead to:

  • Constipation
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Holes in the small or large intestines
  • Inflamed stomach tissue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Heroin withdrawal also impacts the gastrointestinal system. If you’ve been abusing heroin and you stop, the central nervous system tries to rebalance itself, which can lead to:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramping

Effects of Heroin on the Endocrine System

Heroin abuse even impacts your glands and hormones. Effects on the endocrine system include:

  • Decreased libido and erectile dysfunction in men
  • Infrequent or absence of menstruation in women
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Infertility
  • Bone loss
  • Insufficient secretion of insulin
  • High blood sugar

Effects of Heroin on the Immune System

Opioids can affect your immune system by exposing you to potential infections from injecting heroin. They can also affect your immune cells in several ways. This includes decreasing or suppressing T and B immune cells and hindering your body’s ability to make new immune cells. All of these situations make you less able to fight viruses, bacteria, and infections.

The behaviors of people addicted to heroin can also contribute to illnesses and disease. Heroin abusers may share needles with other users. This puts you at high risk for blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. The CDC attributes 1 in 10 HIV cases to injecting drugs like heroin.

Another behavioral component of substance abuse that impacts your immune system is lifestyle. Drug addiction can take over your life and priorities. Your brain thinks it needs heroin or other drugs to function, so it becomes your focus instead of healthy habits like eating well,mgetting enough sleep, exercising, and other practices that help keep your immune system in shape to fight disease and germs.

Looking for a Heroin Rehab Program?

Heroin addiction is devastating for both the addicted individual and their loved ones. The chance of recovery may feel bleak to you, but the fact is, with the right drug addiction treatment, motivation, and support, people do recover from opioid abuse. We see it at our addiction treatment centers every day, and we know you can do it.

Depending on the location, heroin addiction treatment at Footprints to Recovery includes:

We offer medical detox that eases heroin withdrawal symptoms with medications and round-the-clock care, and our addiction treatment programs include both inpatient and outpatient options. You’ll work with a team of behavioral health professionals who are experts in their field and recovery alongside peers who understand what you’re going through.

Get your life back on track and prevent more long-term effects of heroin abuse. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation.



Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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