Heroin: Long-Term Side Effects

Return to the series, "Introduction to Heroin Abuse and Addiction".

Heroin: Long-Term Side Effects

One of the most detrimental long-term side effects of heroin use is addiction itself. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, and by neurochemical and molecular changes in the brain. Heroin side effects also produce profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are also powerful motivating factors for compulsive use and heroin abuse. As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin abusers gradually spend more and more time and energy obtaining and using the drug. Once they are addicted, the heroin abusers' primary purpose in life becomes seeking and using drugs. The drugs literally change their brains and their behavior.

Physical dependence develops with higher doses of the drug. With physical dependence, the body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly. Withdrawal may occur within a few hours after the last time the drug is taken. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (hence the term: "cold turkey"), and leg movements (hence the term: "kicking the habit"). Major withdrawal symptoms peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months. Heroin withdrawal is never fatal to otherwise healthy adults, but it can kill an unborn baby of a pregnant addict.

At some point during continuous heroin use, a person can become addicted to the drug. Sometimes addicted individuals will endure many of the withdrawal symptoms to reduce their tolerance for the drug so that they can experience the same level of rush as they did when they started using.

Physical dependence and the emergence of withdrawal symptoms were once believed to be the key features of heroin addiction. We now know this may not be the case entirely, since craving and relapse can occur weeks and months after withdrawal symptoms are long gone. We also know that patients with chronic pain who need opiates to function (sometimes over extended periods) have few if any problems leaving opiates after their pain is resolved by other means. This may be because the patient in pain is simply seeking relief of pain and not the rush sought by the addict.

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use
Short-Term Effects Long-Term Effects
  • "Rush"
  • Depressed respiration
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Suppression of pain
  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Addiction
  • Infectious diseases, for example, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C
  • Collapsed veins
  • Bacterial infections
  • Abscesses
  • Infection of heart lining and valves
  • Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems

Click here to view the next part in the series, "Heroin: Medical Ramifications." Click here to return to the first part in the series, "Introduction to Heroin Abuse and Addiction."

The above information is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Research Report Series - "Heroin Abuse and Addiction." The report is also available at NIDA's website at www.nida.nih.gov.

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