The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has categorized heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance with a very high potential for abuse and addiction. It is an illegal opioid drug and currently has no accepted medical use. Heroin abuse can cause both short- and long-term health effects which can be devastating and sometimes even fatal. [1]

People use heroin to obtain effects such as euphoria and pain reduction. Those with a physical dependence on this drug may use it to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. However, in addition to these effects, heroin also causes a range of unwanted health effects. The most serious side effect of heroin use is slowed or stopped breathing, which can be fatal.

Short-Term Health Effects of Heroin

  • Warm, flushed skin
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy limbs
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Itching
  • Drowsiness
  • Mental fog
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Slowed breathing
  • Bluish lips, fingers, and toes

Long-Term Health Effects of Heroin

  • Damage to the teeth, gums, and nasal mucosa
  • Cold flashes (goosebumps)
  • Constipation
  • Skin infections from scratching a heroin itch
  • Infections from needle use in IV heroin users
  • Heart, kidney, and liver disease
  • Changes in brain structure

The severity of health effects caused by heroin abuse depends on various factors, such as the amount of heroin used, the duration of use, the purity of the drug, the method of use, individual tolerance, and the person’s underlying health status. Also, adulterants used to cut heroin or contaminants introduced during the manufacturing process can lead to various health complications. Last but not least, mixing heroin with other drugs or alcohol can cause serious, potentially life-threatening health problems.

homeless man sleeping on street

Heroin Abuse by Pregnant Women

Heroin abuse during pregnancy is associated with severe health problems in both the mother and the baby. Premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and developmental problems are common in babies born to mothers who used heroin during pregnancy. In addition, babies exposed to heroin during development can develop a condition called neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) after delivery due to opioid withdrawal effects when they are no longer exposed to the drug in the mother’s body.

Babies who test positive for any illicit drug after birth are treated for any resultant health complications. However, health care workers are also mandated to report the mother to the child protective services. This often results in the removal of the child from the mother’s custody. In some cases, it is possible for the mother to get treatment and go through the necessary process of regaining custody of the child.

Last updated: March 19, 2024

Hailey Shafir, M.Ed., LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS

Hailey Shafir is a licensed addiction specialist and mental health counselor. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a master of education in clinical mental health counseling in 2012, and has developed deep expertise in the areas of mental health, behavioral addictions and substance abuse. She is passionate about using this knowledge to raise awareness, provide clear and accurate information, and to improve the quality of treatment for these disorders.

Hailey is an LCMHCS (license number: S9539) under the North Carolina Board of Mental Health Counselors, and an LCAS (ID: LCAS-21333) and CSS (ID: CCS-20721) under the North Carolina Addictions Specialist Professional Practice Board.


1 J R Coll Gen Pract. 1986;36(284):120-122. Bucknall AB, Robertson JR. Deaths of heroin users in a general practice population. Available online. Accessed on March 19, 2024.