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What Are the Medical Complications of Chronic Heroin Use?

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Updated March 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Are the Medical Complications of Chronic Heroin Use?
Answer: Chronic heroin use - whether it is injected, snorted or smoked - can cause the user a wide variety of medical complications. Some of them are related to the effects of the drug itself, while others are related to how it is used or the additives mixed with the drug by street dealers.

Repeated heroin use can cause lung complications caused in part by the drug's effect of depressing respiration, as well as the general poor health of the user. These complications can include tuberculosis and various types of pneumonia.

Other medical complications experienced by chronic heroin users include:

  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Sexual dysfunction in men
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Users who snort heroin can experience damaged mucosal tissues in their noses as well as a perforated nasal septum.

Injection heroin users often have bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves. They can also experience scarred or collapsed veins, abscesses and other soft-tissue infections.

Effects of Additives

Because some of the additives that street heroin is mixed with can include substances that do not dissolve well, they can clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. When this happens small sections of cells in these vital organs and become infected or even die.

Also, the body's immune reaction to these or other contaminants can cause arthritis or other rheumatologic problems.

Sharing Injection Equipment

Additionally, if heroin injection users share their injection equipment with others it can produce even more severe health consequences. They can contract hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV and many other blood-borne viruses which can be passed along to others.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the following are the short- and long-term health effects of heroin use:

Short-Term Effects

  • "Rush"
  • Depressed respiration
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Suppression of pain
  • Spontaneous abortion

Long-Term Effects

  • Addiction
  • Infectious disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Bacterial infections
  • Abscesses
  • Infection of heart lining and valves
  • Arthritis and other rheumatologic problems
  • Liver and kidney disease

Back to: Heroin FAQ

Sources:

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Heroin." Research Report Series Updated January 2014

The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Heroin." Drug Guide. Accessed March 2014.

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