What Are the Long Term Effects of Heroin Addiction?
Heroin is a highly addictive opiate drug that causes short-term feelings of pleasure and relaxation. But whether it’s injected, snorted or smoked, long-term heroin use can have serious effects on both the brain and the body – and these effects can lead to permanent disability or death.
How Does Heroin Become Addictive?
Heroin is a derivative of morphine, a powerful painkiller created from opium. Like opium and morphine, heroin attaches natural opioid receptors in both the body and the brain. These receptors are responsible for producing natural chemicals for easing pain signals and promoting feelings of pleasure and relaxation.
Heroin binds to those opioid receptors and triggers stronger sensations than the body’s natural ones. Over time you develop a tolerance for heroin, so that more and more is needed in order to achieve the same feelings.
Because heroin affects opioid receptors everywhere in the body, stopping heroin suddenly causes withdrawal – a set of uncomfortable and potentially life-threatening symptoms. For long-term users, those symptoms can continue for weeks, months or even years. Along with lingering withdrawal symptoms, these users can face a range of health concerns, some of which may be permanent.
Physical Changes In the Brain
Heroin has a powerful effect on the brain, triggering feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Over time, new pathways can develop in response to the continuous stimulation of the drug, so that the brain craves more and more.
Heroin use can also cause deterioration in the brain’s white matter – the areas responsible for “executive functioning” such as making decisions and regulating behavior. The brain is also responsible for managing the hormonal systems that regulate a variety of body functions, and heroin can alter those pathways as well.
Infections and Organ Damage
Heroin has the potential to affect any organ in the body, increasing the risk of infections and impaired functioning. Liver and kidney damage can result, and the lungs can be compromised, raising the potential for pulmonary problems and various kinds of pneumonia.
Injecting heroin can cause veins to collapse, and raise the risk of serious infection of the heart lining and valves. Bacterial infections can also affect various organs and tissues throughout the body, and shared needles and equipment raise the risk of blood borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.
Snorting heroin for long periods of time can also cause perforation of the nasal septum or infection and irritation of the tissues in the nose. Long-term heroin users can also experience skin abscesses and other infections of the soft tissues.
Exposure to Toxins
Long-term heroin use also raises a user’s risk of exposure to a variety of toxins. On the street, heroin may be mixed with unknown substances that can cause serious health problems or even death. Toxins in heroin can clog blood vessels or kill cells in vital organs, causing chronic disease or impairment.
Over time, toxic substances can trigger a range of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and other joint and soft tissue diseases. Heroin use can also depress sexual function and may cause painful or irregular menstrual cycles. Long-term users may also experience sleep problems, or mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Some health problems caused by long-term heroin use either disappear or diminish once heroin use is stopped. Others, like organ damage or autoimmune disorders, can be permanent. These effects may also co-exist with lingering withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, insomnia and cravings for the drug.
Treating Heroin’s Long Term Effects
Although many heroin treatment programs focus on treating the short-term issues of heroin addiction such as withdrawal and learning new skills for recovery, the longer-term effects of heroin may not be apparent until well after the program is over. Longer-term heroin treatment programs and ongoing outpatient counseling educates users about the potential long term effects of using heroin and offer the necessary support for recovery.