The long-term effects of heroin use occur at the physical, mental, and psycho-social levels. In this post, we’ll examine these long-term effects and present a counterargument against some common misconceptions.
The Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use: An Honest Account
Researchers and qualified medical personnel understand the long-term effects of heroin use very well. A quick internet search will turn up dozens of peer-reviewed studies on the subject. And while there are some areas of disagreement, one thing is undeniably clear. In short, the damage that long-term heroin use can do extends far beyond the mind-boggling number of overdose deaths we typically associate with the opioid epidemic.
Unfortunately, the availability of this information has done little to dislodge the strange combination of myths and ignorance that inform the average user’s view on heroin’s long-term effects. This post is designed to help heroin users and their families understand that there’s more to worry about than the dramatic overdose event.
Before we begin, we’d like to be clear about our perspective. While our only goals are clarity and evidence-based conclusions, we approach the subject of heroin use as advocates of the abstinence model of recovery. We openly admit that there are other legitimate ways to approach heron use. This includes the brilliant work of harm reduction advocates all over the world, as well as the occasional scholar who has questioned the abstinence model through insightful sociological inquiry.
The work of these fine people is wise, beneficent, and necessary. This is especially true in the informing of public policy and acknowledging the importance of the group. Our motive here is much simpler. We hope to help a single addict stop suffering.
We’ll begin with a look at the long-term effects of heroin on the user’s body. Obviously, even a few uses can lead to the following difficulties:
- Rapid increase of tolerance
- Physical dependence
- Skin infections
- Withdrawal symptoms
Now, these things can start early in your heroin career. We call it a career because heroin use is a full-time job, but that’s another story. In any case, these rather severe early effects give way to much graver consequences later on.
In all fairness, we need to add the following disclaimer. Most of the health consequences we’ll be discussing apply to the chronic, addicted user. We attach no moral evaluation to this habit. It’s simply true that heroin does severe damage to the body with chronic use. They likely do not apply to those few people (at one time called ‘joy bangers’) who can get away with an occasional fling with heroin. But you wouldn’t be reading this article if your relationship with dope was a mere fling, so that’s kind of beside the point.
Does the Method of Ingestion Matter?
Some of the physical consequences of continued use have to do with the way the drug is ingested. Like most drugs, heroin can be ingested in several different ways. These include snorting, smoking, and injecting it. And while the form of ingestion makes little difference in terms of dependence, it does influence the form that the negative health outcomes of heroin users take.
Here are a few examples:
- Snorting heroin tends to damage nasal tissue and the mucus membranes that help fight off infection.
- This leads to breathing difficulties and an increased risk of a variety of respiratory maladies.
- Even snorting heroin a few times can cause nose bleeds and start to damage the sense of smell.
- Swallowing difficulties, often leading to malnutrition.
- Snorting heroin can also tear or carve out holes in the septum.
- Smoking heroin can lead to lung problems and will eventually compromise the functioning of the liver.
- Injecting heroin can cause anything from skin infections, painful abscesses, and numerous severe pulmonary difficulties.
- The long-term effects of IV heroin use can also lead to scarred or collapsed veins, as well as dangerous bacterial heart infections.
So yes, in one sense, the method of ingestion does matter. But despite all this, it’s important to know that heroin is highly addictive drug no matter how it enters the body. Additionally, any form of chronic heroin use can lead to long bouts of insomnia, constipation, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Chronic users of all genders often experience sexual dysfunction as well.
Of course, there is a constant risk of overdose death from any opioid drug. It doesn’t matter how long someone’s been using, or how high their tolerance is. Anyone who ingests heroin at any time exposes themselves to the risks of overdose, respiratory failure, and death.
Cognitive and Emotional Effects
Long-term heroin use inevitably leads to cognitive and emotional problems. This should not be surprising. For one thing, people who witness a loved one descend into heroin addiction often describe them as having become a different person.’ Well, in a very real sense they have become a different person.
We say this because chronic heroin use changes the structure and chemical make-up of the brain. In fact, it actually damages parts of the brain’s white matter. This typically results in poor executive functioning and difficulties in controlling behavior. This is especially true in stressful situations, as the chaotic heroin user simply lacks the brain cells to adapt to changing situations.
The damage can eventually worsen significantly. A high number of heroin dependent people develop moderate to severe mental disorders. These can range from anxiety and depression to mood and/or personality disorders.
Needless to say, these difficulties lead to a variety of social and financial problems as well. Chronic heroin users usually isolate themselves from friends and family as their addiction deepens. They also have difficulties maintaining stable employment and sometimes resort to criminal activities to support their increasingly expensive habit.
The Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use: Fact vs. Fiction
Understandably, many people focus on the possibility of an overdose when they consider the plight of the chaotic heroin user. Clearly, we must do everything we can to reduce or eliminate this heartbreaking event. However, overdose is not the only risk that heroin users face.
As we have seen, the long-term effects of heroin use include other significant risks as well. Yes, our first priority must be to prevent unnecessary deaths. However, we should not focus on this possibility so much that we ignore these other significant consequences. If you or someone you care about is struggling with any form of substance abuse, please seek help immediately. Recovery in Tune offers evidence-based, compassionate treatments that work.