How does heroin make you feel?
The way heroin, or any drug, affects you depends on many
- your age
- how much you take and how often you take it
- how long you’ve been taking it
- the method you use to take the drug
- the environment you’re in
- whether or not you have certain pre-existing medical or
- whether you’ve taken any alcohol or other drugs (illegal,
prescription, over-the-counter or herbal).
When heroin is injected into a vein, it produces a surge of
euphoria, or “rush.” This effect is felt in seven or eight seconds, and lasts
from 45 seconds to a few minutes. The initial effect with snorting or smoking
is not as intense. Following the rush comes a period of sedation and
tranquility known as being “on the nod,” which may last up to an hour. When
heroin is injected under the skin or into a muscle, the effect comes on more
slowly, within five to eight minutes.
New users often experience nausea and vomiting. The desired
effects include detachment from physical and emotional pain and a feeling of
well-being. Other effects include slowed breathing, pinpoint pupils, itchiness
and sweating. Regular use results in constipation, loss of sexual interest and
libido, and an irregular or stopped menstrual cycle in women.
Heroin use causes changes in mood and behaviour. People who
are addicted to heroin may be docile and compliant after taking the drug, and
irritable and aggressive during withdrawal.
How long does the feeling last?
Regardless of how it is used, the effects of heroin
generally last for three to five hours, depending on the dose.
People who use heroin daily must use every six to 12 hours
to avoid symptoms of withdrawal. The initial symptoms are intense, and include
runny nose, sneezing, diarrhea, vomiting, restlessness and a persistent craving
for the drug. Also associated with withdrawal are goosebumps and involuntary
leg movements, leading to the expressions “cold turkey” and “kicking the
habit.” Withdrawal symptoms peak within a couple of days, and usually fade
within five to 10 days. Other symptoms, such as insomnia, anxiety and craving,
may continue for some time. Heroin withdrawal is not life-threatening, but can
be extremely uncomfortable.
Is heroin dangerous?
Yes. Heroin is dangerous in a number of ways. The most
immediate danger is overdose. Heroin depresses the part of the brain that
controls breathing. In an overdose, breathing slows down, and may stop
completely. A person who has overdosed is unconscious and cannot be roused, and
has skin that is cold, moist and bluish. A heroin overdose can be treated at a
hospital emergency room with drugs, such as naloxone, which blocks heroin’s
The risk of overdose is increased by:
- The unknown purity of the drug. This makes it difficult to
determine the correct dose. Ironically, many overdoses are due to increases in
the quality of the drug sold on the street.
- Injection, because the drug reaches the brain more quickly
than by other ways of taking the drug, and because the dose is taken all at
- Combining heroin with other sedating drugs, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or methadone.
Dangers other than overdose that are associated with heroin
- Injection: Injection drug use puts a person at high risk of
bacterial infection, blood poisoning, abscesses, endocarditis (an infection of
the lining of the heart) and collapsed veins. Sharing needles greatly increases
the risk of becoming infected with, or spreading, HIV and hepatitis B or C.
- Unknown content of the drug: Heroin is often cut with
additives that may be poisonous, such as strychnine, or that do not dissolve
(and so can clog blood vessels), such as chalk.
- Combining heroin with other drugs, such as cocaine (in
“speedballs”): When drugs interact inside the body, the results are
unpredictable, and sometimes deadly.
- Risk of addiction: The constant need to obtain heroin, and
the repeated use of the drug, can result in criminal involvement or other
high-risk behaviour, breakdown of family life, loss of employment and poor
- Pregnancy: Women who use heroin regularly often miss their
periods; some mistakenly think that they are infertile, and become pregnant.
Continued use of heroin during pregnancy is very risky for the baby.
Is heroin addictive?
Yes. Regular use of heroin, whether it is injected, snorted
or smoked, can lead to addiction within two to three weeks. Signs of addiction
include strong cravings for the effects of the drug, taking more of the drug
than intended and continuing to use the drug despite the problems it may cause.
Addiction may develop with or without physical dependence.
Not all people who experiment with heroin become addicted.
Some use the drug only on occasion, such as on weekends, without increasing the
dose. With regular use, however, tolerance develops to the effects of the drug,
and more and more heroin is needed to achieve the desired effect. Continuous
use of increasing amounts of the drug inevitably leads to physical dependence.
Once dependence is established, stopping use can be extremely
difficult. People who have used heroin for a long time often report that they
no longer experience any pleasure from the drug. They continue to use heroin to
avoid the symptoms of withdrawal and to control the powerful craving for the
drug, which is often described as a “need.” Cravings may persist long after
they stop taking the drug, which makes it difficult to avoid relapse, or
beginning to use again.
What are the long-term effects of using heroin?
Addiction, and the medical, social and legal complications
that often result from heroin use, can be devastating to the lives of the
people who use the drug.
Research using brain scans has revealed that long-term
regular use of heroin results in changes in the way the brain works. While the
effect of these changes is not fully understood, this research has shown that
it may take months or years for the brain to return to normal functioning after
a person stops using heroin.
maintenance treatment, which prevents heroin withdrawal and reduces or
eliminates drug cravings, is the most effective treatment for heroin addiction
Copyright © 2003, 2010 Centre for Addiction and Mental