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What Are the Short-Term Effects of Heroin?

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Feb 20, 2024 • 10 cited sources

Heroin is a powerful, illicit substance that starts to work almost immediately. Short-term effects can include clouded thinking and sedation. Take too much, and the drug can overwhelm the nervous system and cause an overdose. 

Quitting heroin isn’t easy, but treatment programs can help repair heroin’s damage and help people gain and maintain a sober life.

How Does Heroin Work?

Heroin is a powerful, fast-acting drug that is capable of changing your mind and body.

Opioids like heroin bind to mu-opioid receptors located on nerve cells in the brain and body.[9] Natural chemicals in the human body use these receptors to do things like regulate pain, release hormones and regulate mood. 

When people use heroin, the body produces fewer natural chemicals and begins to rely on drugs instead. In time, people need drugs like heroin just to feel normal.[10]

Short-Term Effect of Heroin on Your Mind

People who use heroin experience clouded mental functioning accompanied by sedation.[5]

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]

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] Essentially, the rush of the heroin high is quickly followed by a sense of sleepiness or tranquility. It’s almost as if the user is in a semi-conscious state.

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. 

How Does Heroin Make You Feel?

People who smoke or inject heroin feel the results immediately, while those who snort feel the effects within a few minutes.[1]

People often describe a surge of pleasure (a rush) that follows heroin use. The intensity of those feelings depends on how much heroin was used and how it was administered. However, it typically doesn’t last long.[5]

Heroin has a half-life of just three minutes when it’s delivered by needle, and it reaches peak blood levels within about five minutes. Most people who use heroin need to take it several times per day to maintain euphoria or, in later stages, to avoid withdrawal.[8]

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 person 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 or fentanyl 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 quickly, but some people use the drug repeatedly. 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.
  8. Heroin Toxicity. StatPearls. May 2023. Accessed January 2024.
  9. Opioid Facts. U.S. Department of Justice. November 2022. Accessed January 2024.
  10. What Effects Does Heroin Have On the Body? National Institute on Drug Abuse. June 2018. Accessed January 2024.

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