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What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Aug 14, 2023 • 4 cited sources

Long-term effects of heroin include collapsed veins, chronic constipation, kidney disease, heart infections, liver disease, lung infections, depression and other mental health issues, skin abscesses, and an increased risk for contracting blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.

Heroin is an incredibly addictive drug, and because of this, people often use the drug repeatedly. Over time, long-term heroin use leads to changes in both your brain and body. Some of those alterations make quitting use of the drug even harder.

Understanding the long-term effects of heroin could encourage you to quit. But you could struggle to make sobriety stick. Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs provide therapies that correct brain imbalances and help you stay sober for longer periods. 

Long-Term Effects on Your Mind 

Heroin is an opioid, capable of latching to opioid receptors within the brain. Each time you use heroin, that latching releases large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

Brain cells aren’t designed for repeated dopamine floods. Continued use can damage the delicate tissues you use to think, feel and communicate. 

Researchers say repeated use can change the brain’s physical structure and function. The portions of your brain responsible for the following actions can deteriorate:[1]

  • Making decisions
  • Regulating behavior
  • Responding to stress

You may not notice these changes. But they can alter your ability to stop using drugs. And the alterations can make you crave drugs during stressful situations.

Long-Term Effects on Your Body

While most people use heroin for the changes the drugs make in their minds, heroin also works on the body. Some of those changes can be dangerous. 

Long-term heroin use can lead to the following health issues:[2]

  • Constipation
  • Depression 
  • Heart lining infections
  • Insomnia 
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Lung issues, such as pneumonia
  • Irregular menstrual cycles 
  • Sexual dysfunction 

People who inject heroin can develop collapsed veins and abscesses in injection spots. Those who sniff or snort the drug can damage the tissue inside their nose. 

Heroin also contains dangerous additives, such as sugar or starch. Putting these substances inside your body can lead to lung, liver, kidney or brain damage.[2] Sometimes, they look like abscesses on the skin’s surface. But sometimes, the damage happens deep within the body in places no one can see. 

Sharing drug paraphernalia, such as needles, can also lead to blood-borne illnesses, including HIV and hepatitis.[2] These infections are treatable, but people with long-term heroin use issues may not get regular medical care. They may not know they’re ill until the disease is advanced. 

Is Long-Term Heroin Use Dangerous?

Heroin is powerful and causes a series of complications with long-term use. The longer you use the drug and the higher the dose, the more likely these issues will take hold. 

These are the three serious complications associated with long-term heroin use. 


With long-term heroin use, cells become accustomed to the constant presence of drugs. They produce less dopamine with each hit, meaning you must take more to get the same high. Researchers call this condition tolerance.[3] 

As tolerance builds, people take bigger and bigger heroin doses. In time, they take enough to overwhelm the central nervous system, triggering an overdose. They stop breathing, and their heart rhythm slows. 

Without quick care, people can die from an overdose. It’s essential to have naloxone (Narcan) available to quickly reverse an overdose.

Physical Dependence

People using heroin for long periods may not feel high when they use each dose. Instead, they keep using it to avoid feeling sick. Researchers call this condition dependence.[3]

People dependent on heroin can experience the following symptoms between doses:

  • Sweating
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 

People with physical dependence can also have extreme drug cravings between their doses. 

Physical dependence is not the same as addiction, or opioid use disorder (OUD). But it can lead to OUD in time.


People addicted put heroin at the center of everything they do. Seeking and using the drug becomes their primary motivation throughout the day.[1] Researchers call this state addiction or opioid use disorder. 

People with an OUD can lose their jobs, families and everything important to them. While this is one of the most serious consequences of heroin use, it’s not inevitable for all people. 

Some people with physical dependence never develop OUD and can keep their lives together for years. But some people develop a serious OUD, and it destroys their lives 

Treating Long-Term Heroin Use

Physical dependence is well understood by scientists, and they say symptoms can resolve when people quit using drugs.[4] But Medication for Addiction Treatment programs can help significantly. People with addiction often need the additional help that medications provide to stop heroin use for good.

MAT programs use medications like Suboxone (a buprenorphine and naloxone combination) to address chemical imbalances within the brain that are caused by heroin use. Enrolling in MAT means avoiding withdrawal symptoms and reducing relapse risks. This can help patients to finally sustain recovery that has eluded them, often for years.

People with opioid use disorder also need therapy to help them learn how to handle stress without relapsing to drugs. Therapy can help them find new friends that don’t use drugs and deal with relapse triggers in new ways. Ongoing therapy can be a vital component of their long-term recovery plan.

If you’ve used heroin long term, you don’t need to have been formally diagnosed with an opioid use disorder to benefit from help. If you’ve tried to quit and can’t, it’s a sign that MAT could be right for you.

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. What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin? National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2018. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Heroin Drug Facts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. December 2022. Accessed March 2023.
  3. The Neurobiology of Substance Use, Misuse, and Addiction. U.S. Surgeon General. 2016. Accessed March 2023.
  4. The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. July 2002. Accessed March 2023.

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