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The Impacts and Effects of Snorting Heroin

Individuals who use heroin face the risk of developing tolerance and addiction, regardless of the route of administration. Various side effects such as fatal or non-fatal overdose may occur. Snorting heroin does not insulate individuals from the risk of overdose, tolerance, and addiction.1

It is therefore important to raise awareness on the dangers and side effects of snorting heroin. It is also essential to learn to recognize the symptoms of heroin snorting and withdrawal symptoms the user may experience. 

Why Is Heroin Snorted?

New users may find snorting heroin more appealing as it eliminates the stigma attached to IV injection use of the drug.2 Additionally, they may mistakenly believe that snorting heroin will not lead to addiction.

This is associated with another common misperception: individuals may believe that highly pure heroin is safer than less pure forms because it does not need to be injected.2

Nonetheless, if a person becomes conditioned to the drug and the effect of heroin becomes less potent and intense, they may progress to injection use.1

Symptoms & signs of snorting heroin - heroin high treatment

What Are the Signs of Snorting Heroin?

A user may show the following visible signs that can last for hours regardless of whether they’re smoking or snorting heroin:1

What Are the Health Risks of Snorting Heroin?

Snorting heroin potentially comes with a range of health risks and complications:

  • Specific medical consequences are associated with snorting heroin as a route of administration. Individuals who repeatedly snort heroin risk damaging the mucosal tissues in the nose as well as perforating the nasal septum, which is the tissue separating the nasal passages.2 Chronic use of heroin by snorting can result in severe nasal damage, such as necrosis of the intranasal structures and soft palate.4
  • Snorting heroin does not eliminate the risk of infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Individuals under the influence of heroin are likely to engage in risky sexual and other behaviors, such as sharing equipment. This may expose them to these diseases and other infections regardless of the route of administration.2
  • Finally, individuals who snort heroin face the risk of fatal intoxication or overdose. This happens mainly in individuals who inaccurately assume that this route of administration is safer than other routes of administration.4 This may happen to experienced heroin users who had begun to use more sporadically, recreational users, and persons who relapse into heroin use following long periods of abstinence.5

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Effects of Snorting Heroin?

However administered, heroin causes an initial surge of euphoria followed by a twilight state of sleep and wakefulness which can last for hours.8

The same goes for the short-term effects of snorting heroin which include the following:7 

  • Euphoria. 
  • Dry mouth. 
  • Itching. 
  • Nausea. 
  • Vomiting.
  • Analgesia. 
  • Slowed breathing and heart rate.

Individuals may also experience warm flushing of the skin and heavy feeling in the extremities.2 Constricted pupils are a common visible sign of heroin use.8

Whether snorted or otherwise administered, heroin can come with dangerous long-term effects that may cause the person’s health to deteriorate considerably. Medical complications the person may develop include:2 

  • Insomnia and constipation. 
  • Respiratory complications. 
  • Mental disorders. 
  • Sexual dysfunction in men and menstrual cycle irregularity in women.

Can Snorting Heroin Lead to an Overdose? 

However administered, heroin abuse can lead to an overdose. Snorting heroin can lead to an unintentional, potentially fatal overdose, such as when individuals take too much of the drug or snort heroin thinking it is cocaine.10 

As part of the growing opioid overdose crisis that has the U.S. in a tight grip, the number of deaths from heroin-related overdose skyrocketed from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,469 in 2016. Since then, that number has remained relatively steady with 14,996 deaths reported in 2018.6 The number of deaths from overdose due to the combination of heroin and other synthetic opioids, fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, in particular, has been increasing steadily in 2014.

Finally, research shows that abuse of prescription opioids may open the door to heroin use and that nearly 50% of young IV users had a history of prescription opioid abuse before switching to heroin. This may be because heroin is much easier to obtain and costs considerably less.2

Symptoms of Overdose

The symptoms of an overdose to be on the lookout for include:8 

  • Slow and shallow breathing.
  • Blue lips and fingernails.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Convulsions.
  • Coma.
  • Possible death.

How  Does Snorting Heroin Affect the Brain?

When shooting heroin, this delivers a large bolus of the drug directly into the bloodstream which is then rapidly transported to the brain. On the other hand, smoking or snorting heroin does not transport the drug into the brain as fast, as it is first filtered through the lungs and/or kidneys.9

When it comes to the smoking vs. snorting comparison, it is snorting heroin that has a slower absorption rate and takes longer to deliver the high.2

Aside from causing potential tolerance and physical dependence to the drug, repeated heroin use changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain, and the result is long-term imbalances in neuronal and hormonal systems that are not easily reversible.2 Prolonged heroin use leads to deterioration of the brain, which may impact the person’s:2 

  • Decision-making abilities.
  • Ability to regulate behavior.
  • Ability to cope with and respond to stressful situations.

The risk of becoming addicted to heroin is high for all individuals who use the drug repeatedly, not just IV users. Although certain routes of administration (smoking and injection) allow the drug to reach the brain faster and so increase the risk of addiction, the drug is highly addictive regardless.2

The chain of events is the same regardless of route of administration:2

  • Over time, abuse of heroin leads to a tolerance for the drug. The person needs to take increasingly higher doses for the effect or intensity to be the same as when they used the drug for the first time. 
  • A person who has developed tolerance no longer derives pleasure from it. Yet, they need to maintain a regular intake of the drug just to feel normal. 
  • Every attempt to quit the drug may cause the person to undergo withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal may include craving the drug, muscle and bone pain, leg movement, restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, and cold flashes with goosebumps.

The attempt to quit heroin abruptly and without any medical supervision or medications is referred to as quit “cold turkey”.However, attempting to quit heroin cold turkey is not only dangerous but also highly unlikely to be successful. This is why the majority of heroin addiction treatment programs include the medically supervised detoxification stage as the first step in the program.2 During this stage, the body is ridding itself of heroin while medications such as Suboxone are used to manage the symptoms of withdrawal.2

How Long Does the High From Snorting Heroin Last?

The peak level of heroin in the blood occurs after 5 minutes of usage whether it is snorted, injected, or used in another manner. However, the potency after snorting heroin is about half of that of injection, which is thought to deliver the strongest, fastest high.9

The intensity of the high from snorting heroin and how long it will last depends on how much drug is taken and how rapidly the drug enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors.2

Regardless of route of administration, individuals may develop tolerance to heroin and its euphoric effect over time. This requires users to take higher and stronger doses to get the same effect, which may lead to unintentional overdose with a potentially fatal outcome.9

What Does Snorting Heroin Do to You?

When snorting heroin turns into heroin abuse, the person’s behavior may become increasingly self-destructive and they may progress to heroin injection.2

Repeated and prolonged heroin use, regardless of method of use, qualifies as heroin abuse. Heroin abuse can lead to health deterioration as it causes changes to the brain’s physical structure and physiology. It also produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence which leads to a heroin use disorder or addiction.2

Without treatment, the person is likely to continue to spiral out of control. Long-time users with addiction to heroin are at a high risk of fatal or non-fatal overdose.2

It is as important to learn how to recognize the signs of overdose from snorting heroin and seek urgent medical assistance as it is to recognize the signs of snorting heroin. This allows you to take action in a timely manner if you suspect a loved one may be showing signs of heroin addiction and may need to seek help in a specialized rehab facility

In What Form Can You Snort Heroin?

It is the white powdered heroin that is most likely to be used for snorting.2 However, aside from the basic palette of white and brown for powdered form and black for solid heroin, the various types of heroin may come with a high degree of spectral variability depending on the adulterants and impurities present in the illicit drug.3 

The solid black tar heroin can be inhaled when dissolved in water and placed in a medical bottle, although the irritability this method may cause could limit the popularity of this route of administration.3 While this type of heroin can only be misted as a solution and then inhaled, powdered heroin can be snorted dry or misted.3

How Does Snorting Heroin Make You Feel?

Whether snorted or otherwise administered, heroin delivers an impactful high.2

Although injecting heroin has more damaging effects on the heart than snorting, a large dose of heroin can lead to a fatal overdose regardless of route of administration: the drug depresses the person’s heart rate and breathing to such an extent they are unable to survive without medical help.2 Whether a person is only snorting heroin or have progressed to IV use, they may need to seek treatment. 

Professional treatment that incorporates medication-assisted therapy and evidence-based treatment is recommended to individuals who wish to overcome their heroin addiction. Scientific research has shown that pharmacological treatment of heroin addiction increases retention in treatment programs.2 Medications can help during the detoxification stage when recovering individuals may undergo potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. Their purpose is to ease and put under control craving and other physical symptoms, thereby decreasing the risk of relapse and increasing the person’s odds of staying in treatment and in recovery.2


  1. National Drug Intelligence Center. (2006). Questions and Answers.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Research Report Series: Heroin.
  3. Daniel Ciccarone. (2009). Heroin in brown, black and white: Structural factors and medical consequences in the US heroin market.
  4. Peyrière H, Léglise Y, Rousseau A, Cartier C, Gibaja V, Galland P. (2013). Necrosis of the intranasal structures and soft palate as a result of heroin snorting: a case series. 
  5. Thiblin I, Eksborg S, Petersson A, Fugelstad A, Rajs J. (2004). Fatal intoxication as a consequence of intranasal administration (snorting) or pulmonary inhalation (smoking) of heroin.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Overdose Death Rates.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Commonly Abused Drugs.
  8. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug Fact Sheet: Heroin.
  9. Robert C. Oelhaf, Mohammadreza Azadfard.(2020). Heroin Toxicity.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Intentional vs. Unintentional Overdose Deaths.

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