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Heroin Addiction Signs and Treatment Options

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

an image of people in a heroin treatment session

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

is a fiercely addictive semi-synthetic opioid that creates problems rippling out beyond the user.

Not only does heroin have a strong potential for abuse and addiction, but the drug also brings with it a laundry list of social issues and disruption to families all over the United States.

The cost of heroin addiction runs into billions of dollars and the drug also wreaks havoc on homes and neighborhoods nationwide. While many people can operate quite successfully as functional alcoholics, the same is not usually true where heroin is involved.

According to 2018 NSDUH data, 526,000 over-12s in the United States had heroin use disorder in the previous year.

Now for some good news. While many may view heroin addiction as a point of no return, it can be effectively treated, just like any other chronic and relapsing disease.

Today, then, we’ll show you how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction, and we’ll also showcase the most effective treatment options.

Heroin 101

Heroin is an opioid that’s derived from the morphine found in the seed pods of Asian opium poppies. These poppies are native to southern Asia, but they are also found in Afghanistan, Mexico, and Colombia.

Heroin is also known as brown, dark, smack, and scag, among many other names.

More pure forms of heroin come as white powder with a bitter taste. Most of this heroin is produced in South America. Black tar heroin is prevalent in Mexico. This darker and less pure form of heroin is processed using less refined techniques. The largest market for Mexican black tar is found among the western states.

Today, heroin is routinely cut with fentanyl. This deadly synthetic opioid is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Heroin traffickers adulterate batches of the drug with fentanyl as it is cheap to produce and also increases the potency of the end result. Unfortunately, this has contributed to a sharp spike in opioid overdoses as the pandemic unfolded over the past year.

Pure forms of heroin are often smoked and sometimes snorted. Most street heroin is dissolved, diluted, and intravenously injected.

When heroin is mixed with cocaine, this is known as a speedball, an especially deadly combination.

The Effects of Heroin

As an opioid, heroin impacts both the brain and the CNS (central nervous system), delivering a battery of short-term and long-term effects.

Short-Term Effects

After using heroin, you can expect a surge of euphoria throughout your body almost as soon as the drug enters the body.

Common short-term effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Itching
  • Dry mouth
  • Reduced mental functioning
  • Heavy arms and legs
  • Dropping in and out of consciousness (nodding out)

Long-Term Effects

When used long-term, heroin use and addiction can lead to many adverse outcomes, including:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Abscesses
  • Damaged septum or nasal tissue
  • Infection of heart lining
  • Constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Lung complications
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Pneumonia
  • Sexual dysfunction in males
  • Stomach cramping
  • Mental disorders
  • Heightened risk of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis

Some of the more prevalent physical symptoms of heroin use include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Track marks on arms
  • Dry mouth
  • Constricted pupils
  • Loss of self-control
  • Reduced rate of breathing
  • Suddenly falling asleep
  • Itching
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Constipation

You may also experience any of the following side effects:

  • Heavy feeling in the limbs
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Memory loss

Heroin Treatment: The Best Methods of Recovery

Scientific research shows that treating heroin use disorder and opioid use disorder using medication can be beneficial, and it can also minimize some of the dangers associated with opioid and opiate withdrawal. MAT (medication-assisted treatment) is also proven to increase retention in addiction treatment.

Other advantages of pharmacological intervention include:

  • Reduced drug use
  • Decreased criminal activity
  • Less transmission of infectious diseases

Medication-assisted treatment

Medications can be used to lessen some of the more uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin detox. These include:

  • Anti-nausea medications
  • Anti-diarrhea medications
  • Anti-vomiting medications
  • Sleep aids
  • Antidepressants
  • Anxiety medications

There are also FDA-approved medications to help you more comfortably navigate detox. These medications act on the same opioid receptors to which heroin attaches, but without delivering the euphoric high.

These medications fall in one of three categories:

  • Opioid agonists: These medications fully activate your opioid receptors
  • Partial opioid agonists: These medications mildly activate your opioid receptors
  • Opioid antagonists: These medications obstruct your opioid receptors, countering the euphoric effects

The following are the most commonly used among these medications:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone


Methadone is a very slow-acting agonist that you take orally in a controlled setting, typically a treatment center or an outpatient clinic.

Due to its delayed action, methadone takes longer to reach the brain and doesn’t deliver the high of more direct delivery methods.

Used to treat heroin addiction since the 1960s, methadone can be effective where other medications have not yielded a satisfactory response.


This partial agonist helps to tamp down the cravings associated with opioid withdrawal, but it does not deliver the high of heroin.

Suboxone is a combination of medication containing buprenorphine and naloxone.

Buprenorphine implants are now available. These remove the barrier of daily dosing.


Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist that blocks the action of opioids without sedating effects, and without causing addiction.

Like buprenorphine, naltrexone is now available as an injectable marketed as Vivitrol.


While medication-assisted treatment is proven effective, it’s best delivered in combination with psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy).

MAT and psychotherapy can be delivered in either an inpatient or an outpatient setting. For most cases of heroin addiction, residential rehab is advisable.

CBT sessions will help you to identify your triggers for heroin use and replace this poor behavior with a healthier coping strategy. CBT can help you more confidently overcome life’s obstacles rather than becoming stuck in the same self-defeating pattern of drug use.

Other forms of therapy like contingency management can help incentivize healthy behaviors to encourage sobriety and a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

Getting Help with Renaissance Recovery

Are you addicted to heroin and ready to reclaim your life? If so, you can kickstart your recovery safely and as comfortably as possible at our Orange County heroin addiction treatment center.

Maybe it’s a loved one addicted to opiates and you’re hoping to get them the treatment they need for sustained recovery.

Either way, we have highly personalized inpatient and outpatient treatment programs to help you or your loved one get back on track here at Renaissance. With medication-assisted treatment to make detox more comfortable while minimizing cravings alongside talk therapies like CBT and DBT, we’ll help you build a firm foundation for ongoing recovery.

For help right away and an effective treatment program to encourage long-term recovery from heroin addiction, call our friendly admissions team at 866.330.9449.

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country