What Does Heroin Do To The Mind and Body? - PAX Riverbend

What Does Heroin Do?

man smoking heroin at night

Heroin is one of the most commonly abused illicit drugs in America and many loved ones have difficulty understanding a loved one’s heroin addiction. They may wonder, “what does heroin do, exactly, that makes it so addictive?” After all, it’s not easy to understand addiction if you haven’t been there yourself. Not only that, but it’s easier to support a loved one if you understand the ins and outs of their drug use. 


Furthermore, loved ones may wonder, “what does heroin do to the mind and body?” It’s obviously a dangerous drug that is responsible for many opioid overdose deaths, but there are short term and long term effects on the mind and body. These side effects typically worsen over time. Similarly, the best way to avoid future complications is to seek up from an addiction treatment center as soon as possible and to stay sober. 



What Does Heroin Do that Makes it so Addictive?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that heroin enters the brain quickly and binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are primarily located in the areas of the brain that control feelings of pain and pleasure, heart rate, breathing, and sleeping.[1] The drug is extremely powerful, especially when used intravenously, allowing for near-instantaneous effects. When the drug is abused, the brain remembers these feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Then, if the drug is used over and over, the brain stops producing dopamine normally. Instead, the brain and body crave more heroin. 


Heroin is extremely powerful and people who abuse it usually develop a tolerance to the drug. As a result, they need larger or more frequent doses in order to feel the desired effects. Once the body is physically dependent on the drug, users will experience heroin withdrawal when they stop taking the drug. These flu-like symptoms are accompanied by incessant, strong cravings to use the drug – a dreadful experience that drives many users to continue drug-seeking. 


What are the Long Term Health Risks?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug, but what does heroin do in the long-term? All opioids slow breathing and heart rate along with many other internal systems. As the central nervous system is continuously suppressed, it is no surprise that long term health effects come as a result of heroin addiction. In addition, heroin abuse is linked to risky behaviors, infections, and other consequences that damage long-term health. People who abuse heroin may experience the following long term health effects:

  • Insomnia
  • Damaged nose tissue or collapsed veins as a result of drug use
  • Infected heart lining or valves
  • Digestive problems such as stomach cramping and constipation
  • Kidney or liver disease, lung complications, abscesses
  • Low sex drive and dysfunction and irregular menstrual cycles
  • Development of mental health conditions
  • Increased likelihood of blood-borne illnesses such as HIV


The best way to negate what heroin does in the long term is to stop using completely. However, people with severe opioid use disorder will probably need help from a professional opiate rehab center.


What Happens During a Heroin Overdose?

Aside from the ways heroin affects the body in the long term, heroin abuse may result in an overdose. In 2018, the CDC reported that 15,000 people died from a heroin-related drug overdose.[2] When someone uses too much of the drug, their breathing becomes severely restricted and they may begin breathing very shallow. The heart then malfunctions as it fails to supply the body and essential organs with enough oxygen. As a result, the nervous system shuts down, potentially leading to death. Fluid may also back up in the airway, leading to pulmonary edema, which further restricts breathing.[3] 


Signs that someone is overdosing on heroin include:

  • Losing consciousness and falling asleep
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Gurgling or choking sounds
  • Limb body
  • Cold, pale, or blue skin
  • Vomiting or aspiration

Although Naloxone (Narcan) is sometimes effective in reversing heroin overdoses, it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Moreover, just because it works on reversing someone’s overdose one time doesn’t mean it will work the next.


Find Help For Heroin Addiction Today

A wide range of therapies and treatments are available to treat heroin addiction and help reverse some of what heroin does to the body. Although there are many treatment options out there, it’s important to pick the one that best suits your individual needs. Many heroin rehabs offer medication-assisted treatment to help patients deal with withdrawals and cravings during detox. 


Heroin has a lot of negative effects on the body, but it also affects the mind. People who are addicted to it usually require behavioral therapy and a comprehensive drug rehab program to help them stay sober in the long-run. Evidence shows that this treatment approach works best when accompanied by medication-assisted treatment and a full continuum of care.[1] 


If you or a loved one is addicted to heroin, you’re not alone. Our addiction specialists have helped thousands of people like you learn how to get sober and stay sober. Contact us today to learn more about your heroin addiction treatment options. 



  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/heroin.html
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470415/

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.