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What Does Heroin Look Like? | How to Recognize Heroin

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Oct 4, 2023 • 7 cited sources

Heroin comes in either the form of a fine white or off-white powder or as black tar heroin, a form of heroin that has a sticky, dark consistency. 

Heroin is often sold in tiny cellophane baggies. The black tar version of heroin is often sold in small pieces of plastic wrap. 

Different Forms of Heroin

In general, heroin is typically sold in the following forms:

Powdered Heroin

Powdered heroin is the most widely available type of heroin, shipped and sold as a fine white, off-white or light brown powder in many parts of the world. This form generally comes from the Middle East and is found on the East Coast of the United States. Purity may vary as the drug is often “cut” with other substances to increase profits for dealers.[1]

Black Tar Heroin

Black tar heroin is a dark, sticky and gooey substance with a blackish appearance. This form is typically produced in Mexico and often found more frequently in the western United States.[2]

Black tar heroin tends to be less pure than powdered heroin due to impurities or harmful additives contained within it. For this reason, the dangers of using the drug are often due to the bacteria it carries and the other chemicals in the drug in addition to the heroin itself. 

Heroin Pills

On occasion, powdered heroin may be compressed into a pill form that resembles any legal pill sold for medicinal use. There is no uniform look to these pills. They will usually vary in terms of color or markings.

In some cases, they may be made to look like legitimate medications. For this reason, they are extremely dangerous because people may buy these pills on the street thinking they are getting a Vicodin or Valium and actually get heroin instead. 

Dangers in All Forms

No matter what form the heroin comes in, use of the drug can result in serious health risks, ranging from heart problems to infections, stroke, overdose, and death.

There is no legitimate use of heroin in the United States. No doctors prescribe heroin for the management of pain the way they would prescribe other opioid drugs, so if someone is in possession of heroin, they are using an illegal and potentially deadly drug.

Heroin Street Names

Common street names for heroin include the following:[3]

  • H: The first letter of the word is often used to reference heroin discreetly in conversation as a kind of shorthand among users and dealers. 
  • Smack: This term refers to the method of administration via intravenous injection.
  • Dope: While this term can refer to almost all illicit substances, it is most often used to refer to heroin specifically. 
  • Junk: Another colloquial term for heroin that emphasizes its highly addictive nature, this street name also references all the additives that are usually in any given batch. 
  • Brown Sugar: Referring to heroin’s appearance and color, it’s more common to hear this on the East Coast when people are referring to the brownish powder version of the drug. 
  • China White: This is also heard more often in the eastern United States. It typically refers to purer heroin forms or those mixed with fentanyl (another powerful synthetic opioid) and sold in powder form.
  • Black Pearl: This is another term that is often used to refer to an especially potent form of heroin. In some regions, this is considered almost like a brand name, referring to a specific type of heroin. 
  • Dragon: This term also applies to a high-grade heroin, often considered to be extremely potent. In some cases, it may mean a type of heroin offered by a specific person.
  • White Horse: Another name commonly used to refer to the white powder version of heroin, it usually comes with connotations of high purity or potency.

How Is Heroin Packaged? 

Depending on the person selling the drug and whether or not it is a powder form or black tar heroin, it may be packaged in any of the following ways:[4]

  • Small plastic bags or baggies
  • Foil wraps or aluminum foil
  • Paper folds
  • Gelatin capsules
  • Cling film or plastic wraps

Heroin Paraphernalia 

Heroin paraphernalia includes all tools, equipment and items used in the preparation, consumption or storage of heroin. Items associated with heroin use depend on its method of ingestion as well as individual preferences.

These items are used for preparing, administering, and consuming heroin. Examples of heroin paraphernalia may include the following:[5]

  • Needles or syringes
  • Spoons 
  • Aluminum foil
  • Pipes
  • Straws or glass tubes
  • Cotton balls or filters
  • Tourniquets
  • Lighters or matches
  • Containers or baggies

How Is Heroin Used? 

Some ways people commonly use heroin include the following:


Many users dissolve heroin in water before injecting it directly into their veins using a syringe for an almost instantaneous high. In some cases where the veins have broken down, people may ‘muscle’ the drug, injecting it directly into their muscle or under the skin. 

It takes longer for the drug to process, but with a history of long-term IV drug use, a person may find that it’s the only option for injection if their veins are no longer viable.


Smoking heroin involves heating it on foil and inhaling its vapors through a tube or straw.[6] In some cases, especially with black tar heroin, the drug may be smoked in a pipe. 

This method rapidly delivers heroin into the system via the lungs and respiratory system for quick onset of effect.


Heroin may also be snorted when it comes in a powder form and inhaled through the nose where it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal membrane. 

Dangers With All Methods of Use

Whether heroin is snorted, smoked or injected, it is a dangerous drug that comes with the risk of overdose with each and every use as well as a high potential for addiction. Each method of ingestion comes with its own set of additional risks. 

For example, intravenous injection comes with the danger of infections at the injection site, collapsed veins and transmission of blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis C and HIV. Similarly, smoking heroin exposes the user to respiratory infections and malfunction. Snorting heroin puts the user at risk of nasal infections and the breakdown of the soft tissue in the nasal pathway. 

Signs Someone Is Using Heroin

Recognizing signs of heroin use early can be a key factor in helping someone to recognize an opioid use disorder (OUD) early on and stop using the drug before the worst occurs. 

Some physical and behavioral signs that could indicate heroin use include the following:[7]

Physical Signs

  • Constricted pupils (pinpoint pupils)
  • Drowsiness or nodding off
  • Slurred speech
  • Needle marks or track marks on arms or other parts of the body (if injecting)
  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose and frequent sniffing (from snorting)
  • Small spoons, lighters, needles or other drug paraphernalia in their possession

Behavioral Signs

  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Isolation or secretive behavior
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and appearance
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Frequent financial problems or borrowing money
  • Lying or being deceitful about their whereabouts

Getting Started With Bicycle Health

Heroin use is incredibly dangerous both to physical and mental health. It’s essential to treat an OUD related to heroin use with care and compassion but also with expediency. The sooner you get treatment, the better your long-term outlook.

At Bicycle Health, we offer Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) for OUD. With the use of medications like Suboxone, you can stop taking heroin right away, avoid the risk of overdose and start the emotional journey to recovery in personalized therapy. 

When you work with us, you or your loved one can potentially get a prescription for Suboxone the same day after meeting with our treatment team via our telehealth services. Our treatment services are convenient, discreet and personalized, ensuring you have the best foundation for a healthy and sustained recovery.

To learn more about how we can help your loved one with the healing process, contact Bicycle Health today. We’re ready to guide you to a better future without heroin.

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. Indiana Prevention Resource Center. Accessed July 26, 2023.
  2. Ciccarone D. Heroin in brown, black and white: structural factors and medical consequences in the US heroin market. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2009;20(3):277-282. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2008.08.003
  3. Street and commercial names. National Institutes of Health. Published July 2017. Accessed July 26, 2023. 
  4. Spotting Drugs & Paraphernalia. HOPEDuPage. Accessed July 26, 2023.
  5. How to identify drug paraphernalia. United States Government, Drug Enforcement Administration. Published January 9, 2023. Accessed July 26, 2023.
  6. Heroin. National Drug Intelligence Center. Published October 2003. Accessed July 26, 2023.
  7. Drug fact sheet: Heroin. Drug Enforcement Administration. Published October 2022. Accessed July 26, 2023.

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