The History of Heroin

Heroin addiction can significantly impact all aspects of a person’s life not only when they are using, but also afterward, physically, mentally, and socially. Whether you are suffering from an opioid use disorder (OUD) yourself, or helping a loved one fight this controlling disease, it’s easy to forget, but there are others out there fighting a similar battle, and therefore, you are not alone. 

What is Heroin?

Heroin is classified as an extremely powerful illicit narcotic analgesic or opioid derived from the flower of the opium poppy plant. As a purified form of morphine, this drug is commonly seen as a white powder and used because it produces feelings of euphoria, in other words, a “high” effect. Heroin can be injected, snorted, sniffed, or smoked. It is one of the most addictive illegal drugs used and abused on the market today.  

The History of Heroin Addiction

Also going by the names of Diacetylmorphine, Morphine diacetate, and Diamorphine, heroin is illegal in the United States. Dating back to the ancient times, the Greeks and Romans, already believed in the power of opium as an effective source of pain relief and used parts of the opium poppy plant for medicinal and recreational drug use. It was transported to markets along the Silk Road from Asia to medieval Europe. 

First extracted in the early 1800s, purified morphine was one of the most powerful painkillers, and still is today. Not long after morphine was known and accessible to the public, physicians turned to drugs with similar properties, known today as opioids/opiates.  

In 1924, Congress made importing opium illegal as a measure to stop the production of heroin. This and other subsequent laws made heroin an illicit drug in the United States, and further restricted the legal use of it. Today, it is still prohibited to use heroin for medicinal and recreational drug use, however, that hasn’t stopped people from abusing it. 

Heroin Versus Prescription Painkillers

Opioids are known as a painkiller used to treat people suffering from chronic pain. Since a prescription is required to get these strong drugs, this makes it harder to access them. While overprescribing opioids have majorly contributed to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States, that is not the only reason. 

While opioids are used as a form of treatment for people suffering from chronic pain, these prescription painkillers are harder to obtain. At the beginning of the 20th century, no nationwide regulations were restricting the availability of heroin and prohibiting people from using it medicinally or recreationally. 

Therefore, individuals began turning to other drugs such as heroin, as it does not require a physician’s seal of approval, and most importantly, it is accessible and easy to get. This is the main reason why heroin addiction continues to be on the rise. 

It is important to note that not everyone who uses pain medication becomes addicted to drugs. However, those who do turn to heroin do become addicted very easily and commonly abuse it with other substances. 

The Prevalence of Heroin Abuse 

The abuse and dangers surrounding the use and abuse of the drug heroin are extremely prevalent. According to a government study reported by U.S.NEWS & World Report (USN), findings showed that the rise in heroin use is instigated by prescription opioid abuse. 

Since opioids are painkillers that need a prescription from a licensed physician, they are more expensive and less accessible. Therefore, people turn to heroin, the less costly and accessible drug. 94 percent of people who switched from prescription opioids turned to heroin for this very reason.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 130 Americans die every day due to opioid-related overdoses, such as heroin. To prove the prevalence of heroin abuse even further, research also showed that in 2018 nearly twice as many people in the United States used heroin. 

There were more than 15,000 deaths due to heroin abuse that same year. These statistics are shocking enough, and demonstrate that despite variations from year to year, the use of heroin has continued to increase in the past decade, as treatment protocols are not always easy to find or access, especially for people living in rural areas. 

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction can be hard to recognize because symptoms do not appear the same for everyone, as we each have a unique genetic make-up. People who are addicted to heroin exhibit their addictive behaviors over time, and it becomes more noticeable as it takes over all aspects of their life, mentally, physically, and socially. 

Therefore, at Behavioral Health Centers, we believe in teaching people the signs and risk factors of heroin addiction, so they can help their loved ones get the treatment that they need. 

Signs of Heroin Addiction

  • Wearing long-sleeve shirts more often to hide needle marks and scarring
  • The appearance of unusual marks on the arms 
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Not participating in hobbies or favorite activities any longer
  • Trouble maintaining relationships and functioning at home, school, and work
  • Talking about drug use 
  • Excessive worrying, lying, anger, and irritability 
  • Compromising their health and safety 
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Isolation
  • Asking for money or spending an excessive amount inconsistently 
  • Becoming more secretive or aggressive

Individuals who are addicted to heroin tend to worry about getting their next fix despite the consequences that are associated with excessive drug use. Various behavioral and lifestyle changes accompany heroin addiction, including strained personal relationships with family and friends. As a result, these individuals begin to isolate themselves, which is very pervasive with today’s generation. 

Risk Factors of Heroin Addiction

Various factors contribute to an individual’s heroin addiction. Biological, environmental, and psychological risk factors all can help addiction specialists provide a proper diagnosis for people who suffer from substance abuse. 

Those who drink or take drugs are also at a higher risk for developing mental illness, and for people with pre-existing mental disorders, they are more likely to abuse drink alcohol and/or take opioids. 


Addiction doesn’t discriminate based on someone’s age, gender, sex, and socioeconomic status. Anyone can develop a dependency on drugs and alcohol, but certain people are more susceptible. However, biological risk factors are mainly referring to a person’s genetics. Those who have a family history of heroin addiction or any sort of addiction are at major risk of developing one too. 


Your environment affects everything, from how we act, make decisions, learn, etc. For people with heroin addiction, being in a bad family environment or at school where peer pressure is a reality, only causes cravings and provokes people to engage in their addictive behaviors or relapse into their old patterns. Therefore, a rehab or treatment facility away from these negative places allows people to focus on themselves and recover successfully. 


Mental health is a major risk factor for addiction. How we behave, think, and make decisions is all part of our psyche. Therefore, when someone is addicted to heroin, their behaviors, thoughts, and decision-making skills become distorted and very difficult to control. 

People with addiction are at major risk for developing a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. This is called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Substance abuse is a major risk factor for those with mental illness. 

Those with pre-existing mental conditions are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, which only exacerbates the problem. Dual diagnosis treatment is required to simultaneously treat both conditions to avoid missing any underlying factors that can be contended for as a contributor to one’s heroin addiction.  

The Side Effects of Heroin Addiction

Withdrawal symptoms from heroin use can occur rapidly. Injecting heroin is the fastest way to feel the euphoric side effects it produces, sometimes within seconds. 

Physical and Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms

Due to heroin use physical and psychological withdrawal, symptoms occur as a result. For every individual, the withdrawal symptoms one experiences will vary along with their duration. There are physical and psychological side effects. 

  • Flushed skin
  • Needle marks 
  • Small pupils
  • Dry mouth
  • Insomnia
  • Tiredness
  • Agitation/irritability
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Slow breathing and heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itchy/flaky skin
  • Constipation
  • Runny nose/ cuts on or in the nose from snorting
  • Cognitive dissonance 
  • Irrational thinking/disorientation 
  • Bad hygiene

Health Complications Caused by Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction can be very challenging to identify if you do not know what signs to recognize or look out for. For example, individuals who are addicted to heroin are only focused on where and when they are going to get their next fix rather than worrying about what the drugs are doing to their overall health and relationships. 

Hygiene and care for oneself start to deteriorate over time, and that becomes more noticeable with people who become addicted to drugs, especially powerful ones such as heroin. Using this very addictive opioid not only has side effects but also can cause fatal complications.   

For example, sharing needles is very common when doing heroin, in which a person can contract infectious diseases such as hepatitis and even HIV. Using heroin for prolonged periods will cause damage to various important organs in the body, and potentially shut them down. 

This is especially true for the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs. Drug use does damage to the immune system, causing frequent sickness and infection because they are too unstable and weak to fight off bacteria. 

This commonly can result in blood clots, stroke, seizures, heart attacks, and commas. If a deadly dose is taken, heroin can kill a person in a matter of minutes. The most fatal causes of heroin use are overdose and death.   

Heroin and Fentanyl 

The heroin that people commonly get off the streets may not be pure, meaning it may be laced with a deadly synthetic opioid called fentanyl. Classified as a schedule II drug, fentanyl is similar to morphine to help with relieving pain, but it is 500 to 100 times more potent. 

Without a lab test, no one would know that the heroin that they are using has been laced with fentanyl. Unfortunately, these two illegal drugs combined with other dangerous substances are usually only identified after a tragic event has already occurred such as a fatal overdose. 

Some additives such as fentanyl are extremely deadly and can kill a person in a matter of minutes. This is usually the case with most heroin addiction stories we hear of today. The person used a high dosage of heroin laced with fentanyl, causing respiratory distress or a heart attack, causing organ failure, causing them to overdose and unfortunately die before they could get the help that they needed. 

Behavioral Health Centers Can Help You Recover

Due to the increase in heroin abuse, there needs to be greater availability of treatment facilities and medications to treat opioid addiction, as well as the medications to treat an overdose. That is where we come in!

If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, Behavioral Health Centers can help you recover and get your life back on track! You are not alone, and we have the resources to teach people to recognize the signs of an opioid use disorder (OUD) before it’s too late. Contact us today to enter our rehabilitation programs!