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What Are the Short-Term Effects of Heroin?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Apr 28, 2023 • 7 cited sources
man suffering itching scratching arm

Short-term effects of heroin include euphoria, flushed skin, intense relaxation, nausea, vomiting, tiny pupils, itchiness, slowed breathing and heart rate, confusion and watery eyes.

Heroin is a powerful, fast-acting drug that is capable of changing your mind and body. People who smoke or inject heroin feel the results immediately, while those who snort feel effects within a few minutes.[1]

Some people enjoy the short-term effect of heroin, and they return to the drug repeatedly for the euphoria and relaxation it delivers. But others have unusual or unpleasant reactions to the drug. Some even overdose and die on their first use.

Short-Term Effect of Heroin on Your Mind

Brain cells are dotted with opioid receptors, ready to accept heroin molecules. When drugs enter the brain, they latch and trigger chemical reactions deep within the brain.

Users describe a rush or a high beginning almost immediately after they use heroin. Cells release large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, triggering euphoria and relaxation. That pleasurable sensation fades into deep relaxation, which some people describe as being wrapped in a cloud of warmth.

People who use heroin experience clouded mental functioning, and some go “on the nod,” drifting in and out of consciousness due to chemical changes in the brain.[2] You may see their heads dip forward as though they’re falling asleep before they snap upright again. 

In the 1970s, researchers gave low heroin doses to humans and discovered that people had slow reaction times and made mistakes while they were high.[3] Even if you don’t lose consciousness, your mental capacity may be diminished while you use heroin.

Heroin wears off, and brain cells return to normal function. But the drug is very addictive, and some people struggle to quit even after using heroin for only a short period of time.[4] 

Short-Term Effects on Your Body

Heroin is a sedating drug capable of changing vital systems throughout your body. 

Short-term physical changes caused by heroin include the following:[2]

  • Dry mouth
  • Skin flushing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching

Heroin can also slow your breathing rates. As your tissues are starved of oxygen, they grow cold and turn a bluish color. Your heart rates slow too, further depriving your body of the oxygen it needs. Without prompt care, these changes can be life-threatening. 

Heroin also slows activity inside your gut, forcing food to move slowly through the digestive tract. Moisture is removed during this process, resulting in stool that is hard, dry and difficult to expel. Many people experience constipation after using heroin. With continued use, this can become chronic. 

Is Short-Term Heroin Use Dangerous?

Some people believe they can experiment with heroin just once or twice and avoid the serious complications associated with long-term drug misuse. Unfortunately, using this powerful drug (even just occasionally) can cause severe problems. 

Slowed breathing can deprive your brain cells of oxygen. In severe cases, deprived tissue can die.[5] Some people experience permanent brain damage due to the damage caused by heroin use. 

Contamination can make heroin even more dangerous, and it’s common. Dealers use substances like fentanyl to bulk up their drugs and make them heavier for more profits. Those additives can cause life-threatening reactions.

Fentanyl is much more powerful than heroin, and it’s impossible for the average user to detect it. A dose that might seem safe could be strong enough to overwhelm your nervous system and cause an overdose. 

Experts say opioid overdoses treated in emergency departments within the United States rose 30% between 2016 and 2017, mainly driven by additives like fentanyl. In Midwestern states, overdose cases treated in emergency rooms rose 70% during this period.[6] 

Anyone who uses heroin, even once, should be aware that the next dose they take could lead to a life-threatening overdose. Naloxone, an inhalant drug sold without a prescription throughout much of the United States, can kick opioids off their receptors and reverse an overdose in seconds. But people who use high heroin doses may need repeated naloxone treatments to avoid relapsing to an overdose once the naloxone wears off and the heroin re-attaches to brain receptors. 

Heroin is also a Schedule I substance under the United States Controlled Substances Act. Anyone who uses the drug could face law enforcement action, including people found with heroin paraphernalia like needles or heating spoons.[7] 

Police officers don’t need to determine how long you’ve taken heroin to arrest you. Even one-time use could come with serious legal consequences.

How to Stop Using Heroin

Heroin doses wear off within a few hours, but some people use the drug repeatedly to keep the high going. Eventually, they may feel unable to quit. If you cannot control your drug use, it’s a clear sign of an opioid use disorder. 

Medications like Suboxone (a buprenorphine and naloxone mixture) can help people to get sober and stay that way. Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs help to correct chemical imbalances and help people build a sober life. 

Medication will keep withdrawal symptoms and opioid cravings under control, and therapy will help you identify issues that led to heroin use and help you build coping strategies so relapse is less likely. 

If you’re struggling to quit heroin, ask your doctor if MAT is right for you. You can also reach out to us here at Bicycle Health, and we can tell you more about MAT.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Heroin. Frank. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Heroin Drug Facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 2022. Accessed March 2023.
  3. Short-Term Effects of Heroin in Man. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1974. Accessed March 2023.
  4. Heroin. Nemours. May 2018. Accessed March 2023.
  5. What Are the Immediate (Short-Term) Effects of Heroin? National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2018. Accessed March 2023.
  6. The Deadly Trio: Heroin, Fentanyl, and Carfentanil. Journal of Emergency Nursing. January 2020. Accessed March 2023.
  7. Heroin Fast Facts. National Drug Intelligence Center. Accessed March 2023.
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