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Helpful Information about Heroin Abuse

Heroin use is a significant problem—both in the United States and around the world. Yet even as this powerful opiate continues to claim lives, the general public understands little about heroin abuse and heroin addiction—and how it affects men, women, and children around the globe.

The information below helps shed light on the basics of heroin abuse. 

How Prevalent Abuse Is

Just how widespread is the problem of heroin abuse?

Consider the following information:

  • Roughly 23% of people who use heroin eventually develop a heroin addiction.5
  • In 2016, 948,000 people said they had used heroin in the past year.1
  • In 2015, nearly 13,000 people died of a heroin overdose.3
  • Since 2010, the number of heroin overdose deaths has more than quadrupled.3
  • About 20% of all high school seniors (12th graders) surveyed in 2017 said that heroin is easily available.4
  • Past-year heroin use was reported by 0.3% of all high school students in 2017.4

Difference Between Abuse vs. Addiction

Building a tolerance to injectable drugs.Drug abuse and drug addiction are not the same thing. However, one can easily lead to the other.

Drug abuse becomes drug addiction when someone loses the ability to control their drug use.9 Addictions typically begin as the voluntary decision to use drugs, either for recreation or pain control. But over time, drug abuse becomes compulsive and changes the brain in ways that make it difficult to resist the powerful urge to use drugs.6

People that become addicted have a hard time stopping drug use, despite the negative consequences.6

Signs & Symptoms to Recognize

Seeking medical help for addiction.If you or someone you know is using heroin, they may need professional treatment. Yet the nature of addiction and abuse is such that they are unlikely to reach out on their own.

Therefore, it is important to understand the signs and symptoms of drug abuse so that you can get them the help they need.

Common signs of heroin abuse or addiction include:7,10 

  • Track marks on the arms or feet.
  • Not keeping up with appearance or hygiene.
  • Changes in friends and hobbies.
  • Secretive or unusual behavior.
  • Neglecting responsibilities.
  • Unexplained absences from work, school, or social activities.
  • Money trouble.
  • Criminal problems.

The most common symptoms of heroin addiction are:7 

  • Intense cravings.
  • Heroin use interfering with responsibilities at home, work, or school.
  • Attempting to quit using or reducing use but failing.
  • Spending a lot of time acquiring and using heroin.
  • Continuing to use despite facing negative consequences.
  • Using in larger amounts and over longer periods of time than intended.
  • Experiencing withdrawal.
  • Developing a tolerance (needing increasingly larger amounts to get high). 

Potential Risks & Long-Term Consequences

Coming down from heroin.The long-term health effects of heroin can be particularly damaging. Along with an increased risk of a deadly overdose, long-term consequences may include:7

  • Infections (tuberculosis, HIV, hepatitis).
  • Collapsed veins.
  • Severe constipation.
  • Skin damages and scars.
  • Erectile dysfunction.
  • Infertility
  • Irregular periods.
  • Physical dependence in newborns.
  • Depression.
  • Insomnia.
  • Death from accidents, suicide, and violence.

What Causes Addiction?

Risks and effects of using.


Some people are at greater risk than others for abusing heroin and developing a heroin addiction. Recent research has found that people who misuse or abuse prescription opioids are at high risk for developing addiction.8

Other risk factors include:8

  • History of chronic pain, illness, or injury.
  • History of abusing other drugs or alcohol.
  • History of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and impulsiveness.
  • Poor health.
  • Associating with peers who abuse drugs.
  • Experiencing discrimination.

Treatment Options Available

If you or someone you love shows any of the signs and symptoms above, take the next step and find help before the abuse turns into addiction. Treatment for heroin addiction typically begins with detox. During detox, people often live at a facility where they can be supervised by medical professionals.

Heroin addiction treatments available.Many of these programs offer medication-assisted treatment that can help ease the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, including nausea, anxiety, and agitation.

Addiction treatment begins after detox. It can take place in a variety of settings. Inpatient detox programs are well-suited for people with serious addictions, especially those at high risk of relapse. People with a stable sober support system may prefer an outpatient facility that allows them to return home at night.

When an individual completes drug rehab, he or she will be clean of the drug and understand how to respond to the “triggers” and stressors in their life that bring about drug use. This will reduce the likelihood of relapse and help them make more responsible choices.

Twelve-step programs and their hosted meetings benefit many in recovery. People may begin to regularly attend meetings before, during, and after more structured rehabilitation.

Before leaving an inpatient or outpatient program, most people set up a plan for aftercare. Aftercare can be weekly meetings or therapy sessions that help keep you on track. It can be difficult to transition from rehab back to the “real world,” so it is important to have a support system in place.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Understanding the Epidemic.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Heroin Overdose Data.
  4. Johnston, L. D., Miech, R. A., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Schulenberg, J. E., & Patrick, M. E. (2018). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use: 1975-2017: Overview, key findings on adolescent drug use.
  5. American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2016). Opioid Addiction: 2016 Facts and Figures.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (N.D.) Preventing Heroin Use: Facts, Factors, and Strategies.
  9. Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. What is the difference between drug abuse and drug addiction?
  10. Indian Health Service. Warning Signs of Drug Abuse and Addiction.

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