Before understanding the dangers of snorting heroin, one must understand what the drug itself is. While some drugs are made from combining chemicals, others are naturally derived from substances found in nature. Heroin is a manufactured drug made from morphine. Morphine is a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod found in the opium poppy plants.
The poppy is native to Asia, Mexico, and Columbia and an essential source for the active ingredient in many narcotics, including prescription opioid pain relievers such as morphine and codeine and illegal substances like heroin. Depending on where the heroin is manufactured, it will range in color from white to brown.
Pure heroin is a white powder that originates mainly in South American. Small quantities come from Southeast Asia. This substance can be snorted or smoked. Pure heroin is generally found in the United States in locations east of the Mississippi River.1
Another type of heroin, “black tar heroin,” is a sticky substance that resembles pavement or roofing tar. It can also be solid, like wood ash or coal. This type is produced in Mexico and found in the United States in areas west of the Mississippi River1. Black tar heroin is generally considered “impure” due to how it is processed and the level of impurities that remain after processing. It is typically dissolved or diluted so it can be injected into the body.
Heroin goes by several “street names.” Some of the names are derived from the type of heroin, such as Black Tar and Negra, and others have developed over time. Some of the most common include Big H, Hell Dust, Smack, and Thunder.2
Heroin can be taken used various ways, including snorting, smoking, and injection. Each method produces its assortment of side effects and risks. When snorted (inhaled through the nose), heroin creates an intense, euphoric high followed by feelings of sleepiness and deep relaxation. In recent years, snorting heroin has become the method of choice for many who use the drug. It is often seen as less risky than intravenous (injecting) use due to the risks associated with sharing needles and blood born disease. However, regardless of how it is used, heroin is still highly addictive, leads to significant damage to the brain and body systems, and has a high potential for overdose.3
Many who use heroin believe it is less addictive when snorted, but this is a dangerous misconception. No matter how heroin is used, it is dangerous and highly addictive. In many cases, professional addiction treatment is necessary. Snorting heroin slows the rate of absorption into the body (when compared to injection). When snorted, it will take a few minutes before the effects of the drug are felt. Depending on the purity of the drug, the effects may last for several hours. As the body processes the drug, you will begin to feel withdrawal effects.
The short-term effects of heroin use often include:
As the initial high wears off, most users experience reduced mental function, slowed heart rate, and significantly reduced respiratory rate. In some cases, the rate of breathing can be slow enough to be life-threatening.4
As with most drugs, chronic or regular use of heroin can lead to dangerous physical and psychological consequences. Repeated, regular heroin use leads to structural and functional changes in the brain. These changes lead to alterations in vital body functions that can be very difficult to reverse, even with treatment.
In most cases, if left untreated, these effects will worsen over time. Some of the most common long-term effects of heroin use include:5
Other methods of using heroin, such as intravenous use, are easier to detect than snorting. However, there are various warning signs one may display if one is snorting heroin. The first is a runny nose. Generally, any heroin use through the nose will lead to a persistent runny nose and sniffling. Another common sign is nasal irritation and inflammation. If someone chronically snorts heroin, they will generally have a red, raw-looking nose, and they may consistently pick at their nostrils.
Other indications include the presence of paraphernalia. Although minimal paraphernalia is necessary, some items, including cut straws, rolled-up pieces of paper, and flat surfaces with a white powdery residue (such as credit cards) are used to create lines of the drug.
Several factors contribute to how heroin affects the body, including how much heroin was used, the purity of the drug, if other drugs were used, and if the person has a pre-existing medical or mental health condition. The physical symptoms of heroin use include those listed above and various atypical side effects.
Some users may experience an uncommon reaction to heroin, the most common reason being a “bad batch” of contaminated heroin. Uncommon physical symptoms of heroin use can include:
With ongoing use, snorting heroin becomes a priority over other obligations. When this happens, there are also behavioral and psychological symptoms that accompany heroin dependence. Common behavioral and psychological symptoms of heroin addiction:
Many fatal overdoses result from polydrug use (using more than one type of drug at the same time). Polydrug use is dangerous because drugs all have different effects on the body. Moreover, using more than one drug with a similar effect (such as two depressants or two stimulants) can magnify the harmful effects of the drug leading to dangerous medical emergencies and potentially lethal consequences.
Heroin use leads to feelings of relaxation. It slows vital body functions, including heart rate and breathing. Mixing heroin and other depressant drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioid pain medications can lead to dangerously slow respiratory and heart rates. In some cases, breathing can slow so significantly that coma and respiratory arrest may result.
Mixing heroin and cocaine (also called speedballing) is dangerous because each substance has highly different effects. While heroin slows the user’s respiratory rate, cocaine causes the body to use more oxygen. Although many people believe combining a stimulant and a depressant should “cancel” the effects of the drugs (which it does not), they do not consider that the practice increases overdose risk.
Although snorting heroin is now one of the more common ways people use heroin, there are other ways to abuse the drug. In addition to snorting, heroin is frequently smoked or injected. When someone smokes heroin, they place it on foil and heat it, drawing the vapors into the body using a straw or other hollow object. Smoking heroin can lead to significant respiratory problems, such as difficulties breathing and asthma attacks. It can also lead to leukoencephalopathy, a disease that causes parts of the brain (the white matter specifically) to deteriorate, which can eventually lead to speech and vision problems, paralysis, and death.
Heroin can also be liquified and injected. People who use IV drugs typically inject it into the vein on their arms; however, other locations, including the leg, neck, feet, and groin, can be used. Injecting heroin not only leads to physical illness and health problems, including clogged veins, organ failure, collapsed veins, scarring, and tissue death, but it also significantly increases someone’s risk for bloodborne infections, including hepatitis B and C and HIV/AIDS.
Sometimes referred to as insufflation, snorting heroin is not without risk. When someone snorts heroin, they draw a thin line of the drug through a tube (often a cut straw or rolled piece of paper) directly into the nose. This method is far more invasive to the body than many realize.
Contrary to popular belief, snorting heroin does not reduce the risk for addiction. It can also cause severe, often irreversible damage to the nose and surrounding areas. Some of the most common physical risks of snorting heroin include bone loss, chronic nosebleeds, collapsed nasal passages, perforation in the roof or back of the mouth, deterioration of the septum (the cartilage between the nostrils), constant runny nose and saddleback nose (a broad, flattened nose).6
Heroin is a highly addictive, dangerous drug. Many people who start using heroin also abuse prescription pain medications. Today, prescription painkillers are sometimes considered a “gateway” to heroin use and abuse. This connection could be for several reasons, including the inability to get prescription refills and the street cost of heroin being far less than prescription pills. As many as one in four people who try heroin become addicted. Because tolerance quickly develops, leading users to need higher, more frequent doses to feel the same “high” they did at first, overdose occurs far too often.7
Withdrawing from heroin and treating heroin addiction requires comprehensive addiction treatment at a professional program. Heroin withdrawal can result in severe and sometimes life-threatening symptoms. It is important to detox from heroin in a program where medically assisted detox and continuous medical supervision are available.
In a medically supervised setting such as The PAC Program, a team of highly trained medical professionals is available throughout the detox process to ensure your safety. While detoxing, they will continuously monitor vital signs and potentially administer medications to help manage the severity of symptoms. Trying to detox from heroin without supervision or “cold turkey” is often unsuccessful as withdrawal symptoms become too difficult to manage, and relapse usually occurs.
Once detox is complete, your treatment team will work with you to determine the best direction for your treatment plan. For some, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) using substances that block the effects of heroin is beneficial. However, medication-assisted treatment is not for everyone.
Currently, three types of medications are parts of MAT programs. They include agonists, partial agonists, and antagonists. Opioid agonists such as Methadone activate the opioid receptors in the brain, reducing the effects of the high that occurs with opioid use. Partial agonists like buprenorphine relieve the cravings for heroin without producing the high or side effects of other opioid drugs. Naltrexone is an opioid agonist, which means it blocks the action of opioids.8
Behavioral therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), are also affecting in treating opioid use disorders. When used in conjunction with medications, CBT and other behavioral therapies can help users examine the root causes of drug use. With ongoing treatment, CBT can help addicts in recovery learn and practice healthier, safer coping mechanisms to use when faced with everyday stressors or relapse triggers after treatment ends.
Heroin addiction is dangerous. If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to heroin, do not wait to seek help. Regular use of heroin can lead to irreversible physical and psychological health effects. With treatment at The PAC Program, sobriety and a life without heroin are possible. Our treatment team is here to help you take the first steps on your journey to physical, psychological, and spiritual wellness. Contact our Prescott, AZ drug and alcohol rehab today to learn more about how we can help you.
If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.