The intended effects of heroin are euphoria, pain reduction, and alleviation of withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts. However, heroin produces a range of unwanted health effects, the most concerning of which is slowed breathing.

Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA in the United States. It currently has no accepted medical use and has a high risk of abuse. The long-term health effects of heroin addiction and abuse are not only devastating but can be fatal. [1]

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 intensity of heroin health effects depends on various factors, such as the amount of heroin used, the duration of use, the purity of the drug, the method of use, and individual tolerance. 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 can lead to several health problems in the mother and in her baby. Premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and developmental problems are common in babies born to mothers who are heroin addicts. Moreover, in mothers who use heroin while pregnant, the baby can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) after delivery due to withdrawal from the opioid drug.

Babies who test positive for any illicit drug after birth are treated, but 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 8, 2023

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 Bucknall AB, Robertson JR. Deaths of heroin users in a general practice population. J R Coll Gen Pract. 1986;36(284):120-122.