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The Science Behind the Heroin Itch: Why It Happens

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Nov 22, 2023 • 4 cited sources

Heroin causes plenty of side effects, including some that are excruciating. Chronic itch is one of those problems. 

Some people develop an intense itch after every heroin dose. The symptom is strong enough to block the high they expect from drugs, and it can last much longer than any opioid-related euphoria. 

The best way to solve a heroin-related itch is to quit using the drug for good. Self-care steps can help your skin to heal while you’re in treatment for addiction

Why Does Heroin Make You Itch?

Heroin is an opioid, and researchers know that medications in this class can cause intense itching, especially when they’re injected. Between 30% and 100% of people undergoing spinal opioid drug administration will develop an itch.[1] Heroin works the same way.

Morphine-based drugs like heroin cause your blood vessels to dilate, causing the release of histamine.[2] Your body releases histamine naturally in response to an allergic threat, like a bug bite. That same response can cause intense itching after a heroin injection.

Your skin contains plenty of heroin receptors, including some surrounding your hair follicles. When they’re connected to heroin, they release even more chemicals that can cause itching.[3]

An itch works directly on pathways to the brain, making the sensation almost impossible to ignore. You feel an intense craving to swipe, touch or scratch an itchy part of your skin.[3] Doing so can cause minor injuries, which can itch as they heal. 

People with a chronic heroin habit may have several itch-based wounds that cause even more pain. 

How to Treat Heroin Skin Itching 

If your heroin makes you itch, it’s time to quit. Your body won’t become accustomed to the drug and stop creating itch prompts. You’ll deal with the problem as long as you keep using drugs. 

Once you’ve stopped using heroin, these tips can help your itchy skin to heal:[4]

  • Apply cold. Wet washcloths or ice packs placed on itchy parts of your skin can stop the discomfort and ensure you don’t scratch. Use them for five to 10 minutes at a time. 
  • Try cool baths. Slip into a lukewarm (not hot) bath with oatmeal. Your skin will pick up the nutrients in the water, while the temperature soothes the itch. 
  • Slather on moisturizer. Use products without additives or fragrances. Apply them as often as you can to keep skin supple. 
  • Dab on cooling agents. Products with menthol or calamine can reduce the heat associated with an itch.

If you can’t stop yourself from scratching, talk with your doctor. You may need medications (like antihistamines) to lessen the urge to dig at your skin. The issue won’t improve until you stop doing more damage with your hands and fingernails. Ask for more help if you need it. 

How to Find Heroin Addiction Treatment

While quitting heroin is the best way to stop a heroin itch, stopping use isn’t easy if you are addicted to heroin. You may feel deep drug cravings and feel unable to resist temptation. A Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) program can help.

Medications like Suboxone use opioid receptors, just like heroin, but they won’t get you high. Instead, you’ll experience fewer withdrawal symptoms and opioid cravings. 

Bicycle Health administers MAT to people all across the country via telemedicine. Meet with your doctor in a convenient, private appointment conducted via your phone or computer. Pick up Suboxone at a pharmacy near you, and start treatment at home. Stay connected with your team in follow-up telemedicine appointments.

If you’re ready to quit heroin, Bicycle Health can help. Contact us to find out if this treatment model is 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. Melo H, Basso L, Iftinca M, et al. Itch induced by peripheral mu opioid receptors is dependent on TRPV1-expressing neurons and alleviated by channel activation. Scientific Reports. 2018;8:15551. 
  2. Katcher J, Walsh D. Opioid-induced itching. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. 1999;17(1):70-72.
  3. Bigliardi P, Bigliardi-Qi M. Peripheral opioids. Itch: Mechanisms and Treatment. Published 2014. Accessed November 1, 2023.
  4. How to relieve itchy skin. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Published October 19, 2023. Accessed November 1, 2023.

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