How Heroin Affects the Body

Most people understand that heroin is a widely used and highly addictive substance. Less well known is how the drug affects the human body. An opioid, heroin causes changes in the brain’s structure after only one or two uses. Those who use heroin and want to quit generally need medical assistance to do so. Quitting use is possible, and can be lifesaving. Here, we will examine the effect heroin has on the body, and how long it can stay in your system. We will also explore treatment options to help those who use heroin to quit.
How Heroin Affects the Body

Short And Long Term Effects of Heroin

Short Term Effects

When heroin enters the body, it turns into morphine and latches onto the brain’s receptors. There, the drug hijacks the brain to send out pleasure/reward signals.This is the “high” or “rush” most heroin users report feeling. Within a matter of minutes, the rush begins to wear off. Users may begin to feel any of the following symptoms:

Long Term Effects

Over a longer period of use, heroin turns the brain against itself. Instead of sending pleasure signals for use, the brain sends distress signals for not using. The user begins to order their daily life around finding and using heroin. At the same time, heroin begins to block the brain’s receptors from recognizing the drug. This means the user is building up a tolerance, and has to take more to get the desired effect.
Heroin also re-wires the reward feedback loop of the brain. Instead of rewarding use, the brain now sends distress signals when the drug is not present. These signals are called withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal can include:

Heroin Use Disorder (HUD)

Addiction to heroin is known in medical literature as Heroin Use Disorder (HUD). Once HUD has developed, the patient has no control over his or her use. The body simply requires more and more substance in order to function. At this stage, patients may begin to show poor performance at work, and home life will suffer. Patients commonly begin experiencing financial stress, as money meant for bills goes to buying heroin. Sadly, many patients will resort to risky or criminal behaviors to acquire more substance.

How Does Treatment Work?

If you or a loved one are living with HUD, you must first accept that it is not your fault. HUD is a serious medical condition, not a moral failure. Almost no one can stop using heroin without a customized medical treatment plan. Our specialists will be happy to work with you to create such a plan. A typical treatment plan includes three components:


The first step to successful treatment is removal of heroin from your system. The only way to safely do that is through a medically supervised detox. For most patients with HUD, this will involve an inpatient stay at a detox center. These centers offer comfortable accommodations, and are staffed 24/7 by a medical care team. Your team will administer medications to keep you comfortable and safe while your body cleanses itself. This usually takes anywhere from 1-2 weeks.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Once detox is complete, you will likely move into a MAT program to continue your treatment. HUD wreaks havoc on the body. Your care team will continue a regimen of treatments for up to 12 months to help your body adjust. You will most likely be in either a Partial Hospitalization or an intensive outpatient program. These programs let you spend plenty of time with your care team and therapists while living at a sober living facility. Most insurance programs cover these treatments, and allow for longer stays versus a fully residential treatment plan.


During treatment, you will also attend therapy sessions in a group and individual setting. These programs help you learn coping strategies for living free of substance use. Most programs today also treat trauma that may have contributed to use. Family therapy is also available to help strengthen relationships and help loved ones through the recovery journey. Recovery is as much for your family as it is for you.

Contact Us Today

Heroin may only stay in the bloodstream for 2-3 days, but its effects last much longer. While flushing the drugs from your system is important, it is only step one to a full recovery. Contact us today to create your recovery plan. It is our privilege to help you regain the life you deserve.