Learn About Our Walk-In Process

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

Last Updated: February 28, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Heroin, a potent substance derived from the opium poppy, is known for its immediate and intense euphoric effects. However, repeated use can lead to a range of long-term physical and mental health issues. This article aims to shed light on these effects, not to stigmatize those struggling with addiction, but to encourage informed decisions and promote the seeking of help when needed.

Physical Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use

Repeated heroin use can lead to numerous physical health issues. Here are some of the most common:

Collapsed or Clogged Veins

This can result from injecting the drug, leading to serious infections and circulation problems. Collapsed or clogged veins impede blood flow, meaning that nutrients and oxygen cannot travel freely throughout your body. Over time, this can mean that your limbs don’t get enough blood flow, putting you at risk of infection or even limb loss.

Heart or Circulatory Infections

Staphylococcus aureus (staph), Streptococcus (strep) and Candida infections are common in those who use drugs. People who inject drugs are 16 times more likely to get sick with antibiotic-resistant Staph infection than those who do not. If they are not treated quickly, these infections can be life-threatening. 

Lung Damage

This can result from inhaling or smoking heroin. Lung infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis are also linked to heroin use, due not only to the fact that people addicted to heroin are often in poor health but also because heroin suppresses breathing.

Nasal Damage

Those who snort heroin can seriously damage the lining of their nasal passages. In serious cases, snorting heroin can even lead to a perforation in the nasal septum that separates the nostrils.

Liver Damage and Disease

The liver processes toxins, and the harmful substances in heroin can cause significant damage over time. Heroin is often cut with industrial-strength chemicals that can be toxic. In turn, the liver can become damaged trying to clear these substances from your system.


This is a condition where there’s not enough oxygen reaching the tissues. Hypoxia can occur from heroin use because heroin acts on the brain stem, suppressing your natural breathing reflexes. This can lead to shortness of breath and serious health problems, including brain damage.

Chronic Constipation

This is a common side effect of many opioids, including heroin. Chronic constipation is not only uncomfortable but can lead to complications like hemorrhoids from straining. It can also result in other unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects like nausea and vomiting.

Sexual dysfunction

Heroin’s impact on hormones can lead to a variety of sexual complications in both men and women. For example, heroin use can lead to infertility and a reduced sex drive.

Sleep Disorders and Fatigue

These can affect the quality of life and overall health. Sleep disorders can occur not only with heroin use but also can be linked to depression and anxiety, which are common mental health conditions in those who use drugs like heroin.

Mental Effects of Long-Term Heroin Use

Heroin use can also have significant long-term effects on mental health. These include:

Mental Cloudiness or Cognitive Damage

As a central nervous system depressant, heroin slows down brain activity. This can prevent clear thinking and impact decision-making.

Depression and Anxiety

Brain changes from heroin use can cause these mental health conditions to develop. Those who use substances like heroin are often more likely to have an underlying mental health problem like anxiety or depression.

Tolerance and Dependence

Over time, more heroin may be needed to achieve the same high. This can lead to a cycle of using more and increasing tolerance. Dependence can then develop, where the feeling is that the drug is needed to function or feel normal.

The Risk of Overdose

One of the most serious risks of long-term heroin use is the risk of overdose. If tolerance to heroin is developed and then use is stopped for a while, the tolerance can decrease. Using that same amount is now too much, leading to a potentially fatal overdose.

Heroin Overdose and Abuse Statistics

Heroin is highly addictive and comes with serious physical and social consequences. The misuse of heroin has been a persistent problem worldwide, leading to numerous overdose deaths and a significant burden on public health resources.

Prevalence of Heroin Use

As of 2021, approximately 1.1 million people in the United States reported using heroin in the past year, and 26,000 Americans aged 12 and older initiated heroin that year. Of those, 16,000 Americans were aged 26 or older.

Overdose Deaths

Thousands of Americans die from heroin overdose each year. In the 12-month period ending in February 2023, more than 5,200 Americans died of a heroin overdose.

Health Consequences of Heroin Use

Chronic heroin use can lead to many severe or dangerous health conditions, including:

  • Fatal overdose
  • Spontaneous abortion 
  • Infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV
  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Lung complications

People who use heroin are at especially high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C. These diseases are primarily transmitted through the sharing of needles or other injection equipment by people who inject drugs.

Heroin and Drugged Driving

Drugged driving, including driving under the influence of heroin, is a serious problem. As of 2021, 11.7 million people drove under the influence of illicit drugs, including heroin. This behavior is not only dangerous for the individual but also for passengers and others sharing the road.

Seek Help With Evidence-Based Opioid Addiction Treatment

If you or a loved one struggle with heroin use, help is available. At The Recovery Village Atlanta, we believe in helping you through each stage of your heroin recovery and we offer a full continuum of care to support you. From detox to help wean you from heroin to rehab to keep you off the drug, we are with you every step of the way. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to learn more.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” January 3, 2023. Accessed July 21, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Products – Vital Statistics Rapid Release – Provisional Drug Overdose Data.” June 14, 2023. Accessed July 21, 2023.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drugged Driving DrugFacts.” December 2019. Accessed July 21, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prevent Bacterial & Fungal Infections In Patients Who Inject Drugs.” Accessed July 21, 2023.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?” June 2018. Accessed July 21, 2023.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” March 2023. Accessed July 21, 2023.