Heroin addiction

The National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) reported that between April 1st 2020 and March 31st 2021, 51% of people receiving treatment for drug addiction were struggling with opiate addiction, which extends to opioids such as heroin.

Whilst this is an upsetting statistic, it also demonstrates that it is possible to find help for heroin addiction. On this page, we describe the signs and symptoms of heroin abuse and how the drug negatively affects your health.

Spoon of heroin

What is heroin?

Heroin is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic drug which is derived from the opiate morphine. Common nicknames include smack, tar, black tar, brown sugar, junk, dope and H. This powerful narcotic drug presents an ongoing danger to public health. Heroin is an illegal drug in most countries around the world and is a Class A drug in the United Kingdom.

It is used as a recreational drug and can be smoked, inhaled or injected intravenously. Heroin’s chemical composition and interaction with the brain make it a highly addictive drug. The drug converts into morphine once it enters the brain and connects to the body’s opioid receptors, which influence our experience of reward and pain.

How does heroin addiction develop?

Heroin syringe

Due to its disruption of the brain’s neurotransmitters, heroin can initially seem to increase positive emotions whilst alleviating mental or physical pain. Unfortunately, the euphoric first ‘high’ of heroin use too often results in heroin abuse.

The term ‘chase the dragon’ refers to users attempting to replicate their initial high but failing to do so. This is because you can quickly develop a high tolerance to your previous dosage of heroin. You may feel the need to keep increasing your dosage, but heroin tolerance only adds to the damage that heroin addiction can inflict on your life.

As your heroin tolerance develops, you become physically and emotionally dependent on the drug. This is because heroin addiction alters your brain structure as you increase your dosage to recreate your first high, but also to avoid physical withdrawal symptoms. Similarly, you may have developed a psychological dependence on heroin if you feel as if you cannot control your cravings or cope without heroin in your life.

If heroin abuse is causing you to put yourself in harmful situations, this is a sign that you are psychologically and physically dependent on the drug. It can be very difficult and dangerous to attempt to quit alone, particularly when you are dependent and at a higher risk of relapse. Therefore, it is always recommended that you seek heroin addiction treatment at a centre like Sanctuary Lodge.

Common symptoms and signs of heroin use

Some people display very few signs of heroin use when they first start to abuse heroin. However, the longer you struggle with heroin addiction, the harder it is to hide. This is because your dosage will increase alongside your tolerance, allowing heroin to devastate your body, mind and quality of life.

Should any of the heroin symptoms mentioned below resonate with you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a healthcare professional.

Signs that you have a heroin addiction

You may be reading these heroin symptoms because you are not sure whether you are struggling with heroin addiction. If you are experiencing it, you may find that you…

  • Are constantly thinking about heroin and the euphoria of your first high
  • Deeply crave heroin when you cannot access it
  • Have lost weight recently due to heroin withdrawal
  • Often feel very tired, even when you have overslept
  • Experience shortness of breath, dry mouth and unbearable itching
  • Feel agitated or irritable around others
  • Experience frequent anxiety and/or depression
  • Have lost your sense of personal motivation
  • No longer partake in the activities or hobbies that you used to enjoy
  • Feel lost and paranoid, sometimes experiencing delusions or hallucinations

Signs that a loved one has a heroin addiction

Many clients who join a rehab programme at Sanctuary Lodge have loved ones who have witnessed the horrible effects of their heroin abuse. If you are concerned that a friend, colleague or family member demonstrates signs of heroin use, ask yourself whether they…

  • Often have chills, flushed skin and respiratory infections
  • Fall asleep or ‘nod off’ in the middle of a conversation
  • Speak very quickly or stumble over their words
  • Lie about their heroin abuse or hide paraphernalia (syringes, needles, spoons, pipes, belts, shoelaces etc.)
  • Neglect their home life, academic or career to abuse heroin
  • No longer maintain their personal hygiene or appearance
  • Avoid family members or old friends
  • Have new friends who also suffer from heroin addiction
  • Are often hostile to others and have dramatic mood swings
  • Quickly switch from highly energetic to extremely lethargic
  • Have slurred speech and constricted pupils
  • Wear long-sleeved clothing to hide scabs, bruises or marks on their body

Risk factors and causes of heroin abuse

Woman with anxiety

Always remember that people who are addicted to heroin may initially seem to be tired or depressed. They are likely to hide, lie about or deny the existence of their heroin addiction. In addition to the symptoms and signs of heroin abuse, you should be aware of the long-term causes and risk factors of heroin addiction.

There is no singular cause of heroin addiction. This health condition affects different people in a variety of ways. Despite this, the risk factors for heroin abuse can be traced back to your:


Child abuse and past traumas can play a significant role in heroin addiction. If friends and family members abuse heroin in your home environment, you might not perceive heroin to be a significant danger to your health. Instead, you may perceive heroin to be a coping mechanism. This is known as repeated exposure, meaning that the longer you are around the narcotic, the more likely you are to develop heroin addiction.

Mental health

Some people struggle with heroin abuse when they attempt to self-medicate for other underlying health conditions. If you suffer from heroin addiction and another mental illness, you may have what is called a co-occurring disorder. The mental health disorders which often co-occur with heroin addiction include, but are not limited to:

  • Alcoholism
  • Substance abuse with other drugs
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia


If you have a close family member or first-degree relative who struggles with heroin addiction, you may have inherited their genetic traits. This does not mean that you will certainly abuse heroin. However, it could mean that you may be more likely to develop heroin addiction if you do begin to use heroin.

How does heroin abuse impact health?

Heroin addiction is a life-threatening drug addiction and mental health disorder that, if left untreated by a medical professional, can lead to chronic health problems or death.

Physical health risks of heroin addiction

  • Chronic respiratory illness
  • Infections of the valves and lining of the heart
  • Risks of contracting chronic illnesses such as pneumonia, septicaemia, HIV or hepatitis B and C
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Menstrual problems and increased risk of miscarriage
  • Skin conditions
  • Abscesses, scars and collapsed veins
  • Seizures
  • Blood clots and strokes
  • Cardiac arrest (heart attack)
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Death

Mental health risks of heroin addiction

  • Brain damage and reduced cognitive functioning
  • Nerve damage to neurotransmitters
  • Co-occurring disorders with other mental health conditions
  • Problems at work, school or university
  • Relationship difficulties with parents, siblings, children or friends
  • Anxiety about unpaid debts or ties to dealers and criminals
  • Incarceration if found to be dealing or in possession of heroin
  • Depression, guilt or shame
  • Increased risk of self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviours

How to overcome heroin addiction

Seeking help is the most important step you must take to begin your heroin addiction recovery. Entering a heroin rehab facility like Sanctuary Lodge offers allows you to unburden your pain and receive the crucial love and support of others. Recovering from heroin addiction not only improves your physical health, but also your emotional wellbeing, financial security and your relationships with friends and family, which is easier with the support of a group, rather than trying to fight cravings alone.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between heroin addiction and heroin abuse?
Heroin abuse is the act of taking dangerous dosages of heroin despite its impact on your health. Heroin addiction occurs when heroin abuse develops into a self-destructive pattern of behaviour.
Can you die of heroin addiction?
Unfortunately, heroin addiction can be fatal if you overdose on the drug. Your body can quickly gain a tolerance to heroin, which can increase your chances of an overdose. Unsupervised heroin detox can be equally dangerous and result in death if you are not treated by a medical professional.
How can Sanctuary Lodge help me with heroin addiction?
Our empathetic addiction support workers are dedicated to helping you make a full and long-term recovery from heroin abuse. Situated in the tranquil Surrey countryside, Sanctuary Lodge offers a safe and supportive space for you to heal from heroin addiction. You will receive heroin detox, psychological treatment and holistic therapies at the hands of our highly-qualified medical staff.
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