Heroin Addiction Health Risk Factors

Learn about heroin addiction health risk factors, symptoms, effects, and treatment methods in this informative article.
Heroin Addiction Health Risk Factors

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Table of Contents

What Is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin addiction (an opioid use disorder) is a chronic medical health condition characterized by compulsive heroin use or abuse even in the face of adverse health consequences. Heroin addiction occurs due to prolonged exposure of the brain to high levels of heroin. This eventually results in alterations in the structure and function change of the brain, which leads to heroin dependence and tolerance.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid derived from morphine, obtained directly from the opium poppy plant, that can either be sniffed, smoked, or injected. It has major potential for abuse and is responsible for millions of addiction-related mental health conditions and deaths globally.

In 2020 alone, 13,165 heroin-related deaths were reported in America. This comes as no surprise seeing as it has very strong addiction-causing effects. In fact, of all substances of abuse with a tendency to cause dependency, opioids rank among the most frequently occurring and are associated with severe side effects. 1 

Risk Factors of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a drug of abuse with a high addiction-causing profile, meaning that people easily get addicted to it. Nonetheless, some heroin addiction health risk factors can predispose people to heroin addiction, essentially making them more vulnerable to developing an addiction to heroin. These heroin addiction risk factors include:

History of Drug Use

History of drug use ranks among the most significant heroin addiction health risk factors. When people have a history of another drug addiction, it makes them vulnerable to heroin use. This is because heroin exhibits similar brain chemistry and activity to most other drugs of abuse. As a result, it will be relatively easy for a person with a history of drug use to slip into heroin addiction after a short period of use.

Opioid Prescriptions

Opioid prescription drugs, like morphine and oxycodone, are commonly prescribed for pain due to their strong analgesic and sedative effects. Unfortunately, due to these same effects and the ability to cause euphoria (in some), they are potential drugs of abuse.
Addiction can easily develop if treatment with opiates is not properly managed. For example, a study found that 86% of people abused prescription opioids prior to using heroin. 2 

Peer Pressure

This is the most common heroin addiction risk factor. The strong need to be accepted by friends makes people susceptible and willing to do what their friends do or ask them to do.


It is more likely that people will try heroin if they live in a community where heroin abuse is prevalent.

High Levels of Stress

Stress can also be a heroin addiction health risk factor. Heroin is known to relieve stress and pain, thanks to its analgesic and sedative effects. As a result, people with high pain or stress levels eventually turn to heroin use for relief.

Mental Illness

Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can make people turn to heroin. An estimated 9.2 million adults in America have a co-occurring disorder, meaning they simultaneously have a mental health and substance use disorder. 3 

Family History of Heroin Addiction

This is one of the most significant biological risk factors for heroin addiction. Children with parents who have a history of heroin abuse are at a higher risk of developing a heroin addiction themselves. Genes are a major driving factor here, as it affects the brain chemistry, making people susceptible to heroin.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction are classified under physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms, usually varying on the individuals, their health conditions, and their heroin abuse history. Signs and symptoms common in heroin addiction will be detailed below.

Physical Symptoms

There are various physical side effects that will occur when a person is using or addicted to heroin. These symptoms include:
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite change and weight loss
  • Tremors
  • Bad breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Itchy and red skin
  • Impaired coordination

Behavioral Symptoms

Heroin use and dependency can influence how a person behaves. Indicators of this behavior include:
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Neglecting official duties and responsibilities
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Wearing thick clothes in warm weather to hide injection marks

Psychological Symptoms

Those who partake in heroin consumption will experience psychological symptoms. Heroin affects how a person’s brain perceives reality. Examples of these psychological symptoms include:
  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Attitude change
  • Lack of motivation

Health Consequences

Heroin has been linked with many health consequences, ranging from mild to severe, in both short-term and long-term use. The consequences of heroin abuse include the following:


The short-term effects of heroin abuse are usually obvious a few hours to a few days after use. The short-term effect of heroin include:
  • Severe itching
  • Slow breathing 
  • Slow heart rate
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss


The long-term effects of heroin abuse are commonly very severe and develop gradually over a long period. They include:
  • Skin disease
  • Septicemia
  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the valves and lining of the heart
  • Liver disease


The most severe health effect of heroin addiction is the risk of death due to heroin overdose. Overdose can happen quickly and easily, as the potency, contents, and dose are typically unknown. Therefore, people are vulnerable to consuming too much or injecting unknown substances into the body that could affect their normal dose, increasing the risk of overdose.
Another factor implicated in heroin overdose is tolerance. Tolerance to heroin’s effects will increase the dose consumed per time, thereby significantly increasing the risk of overdose.

Risk Factors for Heroin Overdose

Risk factors associated with heroin addiction include the following:
  • Using prescription opioids without doctor supervision
  • Injecting heroin of unknown concentration or composition
  • Ingesting heroin via injection routes
  • Combining heroin with alcohol