Chronic, long-term heroin use can result in a range of medical complications. Negative consequences may occur depending on how the drug is administered, whether by snorting, injecting or smoking.
Various medical complications due to long-term heroin abuse can include:
- Snorting: damage to the lining of the nose, damage to the nasal septum (cartilage between the nostrils) and possible damage to the roof of the mouth
- Injecting: collapsed veins, infection of the lining or valves of the heart, skin abscesses (pus-filled infections)
- Smoking: lung infections (pneumonia), irreversible lung damage, increased risk of mouth, throat and lung cancers
Prolonged exposure to opioids, such as heroin, can significantly influence an individual’s testosterone levels. In men, this can cause erectile dysfunction, and in women, it can cause irregular menstrual cycles. Over time, heroin can cause irreversible damage to the liver and kidneys, which can result in future liver or kidney disease. Long-term heroin use can also cause uncomfortable constipation and stomach cramping.
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In addition to the effects of heroin, the additives sometimes added to the drug usually do not dissolve entirely in blood. Additives such as talcum powder or cornstarch may clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys or brain, which can cause infection or small patches of cells in these vital organs to die.
When patches of cells die off in vital organs, the immune system can start attacking them, believing they are foreign contaminants, which can lead to arthritis or other rheumatological problems.
Individuals who inject heroin are also at a higher risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis B and C and other blood-borne diseases.
How Long-Term Heroin Use Affects The Brain
Repetitive heroin use changes the physical structure and chemical composition of the brain. These changes then create long-term imbalances in neurons (chemicals in the brain) and hormones that are not easily reversed. Some scientific studies have shown long-term heroin use can also cause white brain matter to deteriorate.
White brain matter is thought to affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior and responses to stressful situations. Many people who chronically abuse heroin also experience mental disorders, such as depression and antisocial personality disorder.
Long-Term Heroin Use, Addiction, And Withdrawal
Severe addiction to heroin has been shown to start rapidly after significant abuse, due to its effects on the pleasure and reward center of the brain. The longer someone abuses heroin, the more their physical dependence on the drug increases. When someone develops a physical dependence on heroin, they will need substantially larger and more frequent doses to experience the same effects a smaller dose once had.
If someone who has developed a physical dependence suddenly stops using heroin, they can experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal typically happens within hours after the last time the drug was taken.
Possible heroin withdrawal symptoms include:
- muscle and bone pain
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes
- involuntary leg movements
The intensity of withdrawal symptoms typically peaks between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose and last about a week. In some cases though, individuals may experience an extended withdrawal period that lasts for months.
How Long-Term Heroin Use Affects Withdrawal
People who chronically abuse heroin usually don’t experience peak withdrawal symptoms until 48 to 72 hours after their last dose. This extended withdrawal is thought to be due to the excess buildup of the drug in their body. Usually, withdrawal symptoms will subside in seven to 10 days. Most healthcare professionals agree that the more severe someone’s addiction to heroin, the more severe their withdrawal symptoms will be.
In fact, many people who use the drug for a long time (six weeks or more) continue to abuse the drug even after they stop experiencing the desired effects to provide relief from painful, flu-like symptoms.
Overdosing On Heroin
Some people believe that the longer they use heroin, the less likely they are to experience an overdose. However, an overdose can happen during initial use of heroin and randomly after that. It is virtually impossible for someone to know the real strength or true contents of the heroin they use, which greatly increases the risk of overdose and possible death.
Heroin overdose is a very real danger and far more common than people may think. A 2001 study in Australia found that 54 percent of people who regularly inject heroin reported experiencing at least one non-fatal overdose in their lifetime. The most common sign of heroin overdose is difficulty breathing.
Other possible symptoms of a heroin overdose include:
- pinpoint pupils
- possible coma or death
Additional Effects Of Long-Term Heroin Use
In addition to the detrimental health effects, heroin use can cause, there are also hidden risks that come with using this drug. These risks are not necessarily due to heroin, but to the lifestyle and habits that come with its use. Some examples of additional effects of heroin use include poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, and frequent colds.
Long-term heroin use may also cause someone to break up friendships or other personal relationships and ruin their finances. Continuous heroin purchases can cost an individual up to $200 a day, and that isn’t the only expense that comes with heroin abuse. Other possible expenses include paraphernalia, medical bills, legal fees and job loss.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) For Long-Term Heroin Use
Medication-assisted treatments are useful in helping people stop heroin use. It is vital that the best treatment approach is used to meet the particular needs of every individual.
Medications are currently being developed to help with the withdrawal process, including the FDA-approved lofexidine. Lofexidine is a non-opioid medicine designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Other medications used to treat heroin use include buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) and methadone. These medications work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin, but they don’t interact as much as heroin, which in turn reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Treating Long-Term Heroin Use And Addiction
Long-term heroin abuse can result in a severe addiction to the drug. In most cases, it is best to seek help from a professional addiction treatment program, not only due to the possibly fatal side effects when withdrawing from the heroin, but also because of the intense psychological component involved in heroin addiction.
Inpatient treatment programs can help individuals through their initial detox period, ensuring their safety and comfort. These programs can also be safe havens for individuals who need to step out of their current environment to assess their heroin use and how it affects their lives. With constant medical supervision, individuals are more likely to be successful in breaking their long-term heroin use than they are on their own.