Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin use is increasing in Australia, with the deaths from drug use currently at the highest they’ve been in almost twenty years.

It’s easy to get hold of heroin in most of Australia’s cities and as it’s cheaper than other drugs, it’s a popular way to get high. However, the very reason it’s so accessible makes heroin a very dangerous drug. It’s highly addictive and there’s a constant risk of overdose for users.

If you’re looking for information to help someone to beat a heroin addiction, or you’re struggling with addiction yourself, this article includes more information about heroin and how to help someone who has become dependent on the drug.

preparing heroin

What is Heroin?

Heroin is a type of drug classed as an opioid, a class of drugs that are made from poppy plants. These drugs are used in a medical setting to control pain but they also cause a feeling of euphoria and so are often abused.

Heroin is a depressant, which slows down the brain, central nervous system, breathing, and heart rate of the person who takes it.

Heroin is typically injected but it may also be consumed by smoking or snorting. It’s often mixed with other substances such as tobacco or cannabis for smoking.

Common street names for heroin include smack, junk, gear, dope, horse, skag, h, hammer, harry, and dragon.

make up a hit or injection of heroin

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Heroin is available in various different forms including white powder, off-white granules, or small brown ‘rocks’. Black tar heroin is another form of heroin that resembles tar in colour and consistency.

Heroin is white when it’s 100% pure. The brown colour it sometimes appears as has comes from other substances that have been added to it. It’s not possible to tell how pure heroin is just from looking at it, however – dealers often ‘cut’ powdered heroin with similar-looking substances such as paracetamol, sugar, or caffeine.

This makes it difficult to know the strength of a dose or what exactly is in heroin sold on the street and means the risk of an overdose or poisoning from added substances, such as strychnine, is high.

Short-Term Effects of Heroin

The effects of heroin depend on the strength of the dose, the weight and height of the person taking it, if it’s taken alone or with other drugs, and their tolerance to the drug (a regular user will be less affected).

Heroin gives the person taking it a ‘high’ or feeling of euphoria and pleasure within about five minutes of taking it.

Other short-term effects include:

  • Relief from pain
  • Feeling relaxed and sleepy
  • Slowed breathing and heartbeat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Small pupils
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Slurred and slow speech.

Signs of a Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a very addictive drug, both physically and mentally. Users develop dependence quickly because the effects of the drug last only for a few hours and the body builds tolerance quickly so that a higher dose must be taken to feel the same effects.

Not everyone who tries heroin will become addicted, but approximately one in four people who try heroin for the first time will develop an addiction.

If you suspect someone close to you is abusing drugs, you may find signs of heroin use including:

  • Finding drug paraphernalia such as syringes, glass or metal pipes, or dirty spoons
  • Track marks inside the arm, behind the knees or other parts of the body
  • Changes in behaviour and withdrawal from social relationships, school, and work
  • They may ask to borrow money for suspicious reasons or you may notice money or valuables have gone missing
  • Engaging in illegal activities

young man pours heroin into a spoon

Symptoms of Heroin Overdose

An overdose is possible if users take a large amount of the drug or get a batch that is stronger than usual. Overdose is a risk at any time of taking heroin, as it is impossible to know the exact dose of the drug unless it is administered in a medical setting.

Symptoms that might indicate a heroin overdose include:

  • Passing out
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Slow breathing
  • Blue lips and fingertips
  • Low body temperature
  • Cold and clammy skin

What to Do if You Suspect an Overdose

If you think that you might have overdosed on heroin, or you notice these overdose symptoms in another person, it’s important to seek help quickly. Overdose can lead to heart failure, respiratory failure, coma, and death.

Some of the symptoms of heroin overdose, such as sleepiness, are similar to the usual effects of taking the drug. However, if you find you can’t wake someone who has taken heroin, or they seem to be having trouble breathing, you must call an ambulance immediately.

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and tell the operator you suspect a heroin overdose.

Paramedics usually won’t involve the police unless other people are at risk or someone dies.

Heroin Dependence and Tolerance

Dependence on heroin develops gradually over time with regular use. This can affect mental health and relationships and heroin addicts can turn to crime to fund their increasing consumption of the drug.

Why is Heroin So Addictive?

All opioid drugs are highly addictive due to the effect they have on the brain. After taking heroin, enzymes in the brain convert it into morphine and it then attaches to a type of cells called opioid receptors.

Opioid receptors are located throughout the body including in the brain stem, the spinal cord, and the digestive tract.

After morphine has attached to these opioid receptors, the body releases dopamine. This is a “reward” chemical produced naturally by the body in response to activities including sex, exercise, and is associated with drug abuse and addiction.

Dopamine is responsible for the pleasurable feelings or high that come from taking many drugs.

As heroin is a physically dependent drug, regular users who stop taking it suddenly will experience withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are so unpleasant that most addicts keep taking the drug to avoid them, even when they want to stop.

One of the effects of heroin is removing the perception of pain, the withdrawal symptoms can feel excruciatingly painful to a heroin addict who is used to feeling no pain at all. This is one of the reasons why a heroin addiction is so difficult to overcome.

drug addict sleeping after taking drugs

Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms usually start around 6 to 24 hours after taking the last dose of heroin. During the period of withdrawal, heroin addicts will experience several unpleasant symptoms including:

  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach cramps
  • Leg cramps
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sweating
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Runny eyes and nose

Long-term Effects of Heroin

Heroin can affect users both physically and psychologically when used regularly over a long period of time. Long-term effects include:

  • Depression
  • Reduced fertility
  • Vein and skin damage
  • Organ damage including the heart, liver, lungs, and brain
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Lack of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Risk of contracting diseases such as hepatitis and HIV from sharing equipment
  • Destruction of relationships and career
  • Dependence and addiction
  • Risk of overdose and death

Many of these long-term effects can be reversed or reduced when the user stops taking the drug. Many ex-addicts go on to live healthy lives after recovering from addiction

Using Heroin With Other Drugs

Taking heroin with other drugs, including both illicit drugs and over the counter drugs, may increase or alter its effects. These interactions are unpredictable and can be dangerous as they can cause serious side effects.

As heroin is a depressant, when it is taken with tranquillisers and other depressant drugs and alcohol, the effects are increased as if a high dose of heroin was taken. Breathing and heart rate will slow significantly and there is a higher risk of overdose.

Many fatalities reported as overdoses are actually caused by heroin interacting with other depressant drugs.

When taken with ice, speed, or ecstasy, there is also an increased risk of overdose as well as huge strain on the heart and kidneys.

Heroin Dependence Treatment

Residential treatment

It is often helpful for addicts to be removed completely from the situation and lifestyle in which they started a drug habit.

Inpatient treatment can provide a haven for drug users to battle their addiction in a safe and supportive environment, as well as providing medical supervision for detoxification and drug therapies.

Most individuals need a minimum of 90 days in treatment to break the addiction cycle and have the best chance at a new life without drugs.

The most appropriate treatment pathway will depend on the user’s health, lifestyle, support network, and individual circumstances. It’s best to have a consultation with a drugs counsellor to decide on the treatment plan that is likely to be most effective.

If you recognise the signs of heroin dependence in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to seek professional help.

There are many options for treating heroin dependence to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal and help heroin users to live their lives without drugs:

Individual counselling

One-on-one therapy with a trained drugs counsellor or therapist. Various techniques may be used such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps addicts to recognise and cope with situations in which they might relapse.

Counsellors help individuals to identify their own issues and problems separate from the addiction and establish alternative healthier coping mechanisms.

Group therapy

Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and other independent groups provide a supportive environment for drug addicts to discuss their problems together in a safe environment.

Group sessions may be led by a trained counsellor using similar techniques to those used in individual counselling, or may be run on a twelve-step model, where addicts are encouraged to admit their addiction and start a new drug-free life with the support of the group.



The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the United States advises that medications such as methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine can be helpful in heroin addiction treatment. They reduce cravings for heroin and can be used as an alternative, safer, controlled drug taken long-term, or used in detoxification.

Patients taking monitored doses of these drugs can often keep their jobs and maintain relationships, avoid crime, and reduce the risk of contracting HIV and other blood-borne diseases.


Heroin detox focuses on the physical effects of the drug and aims to treat the addiction by removing all traces of heroin from the addict’s system.

In the detox process, users stop taking heroin completely, after which the body will go into withdrawal. To make this process more comfortable and safer, it is often conducted in an inpatient facility with medical supervision and the help of medications such as those detailed above.

Detox treats the physical dependence on the drug, but not the psychological dependence and behaviours of the addict, so it’s important to combine detox with therapy or counselling to avoid a relapse.

Where to get help in Melbourne

The Riverside Clinic, Melbourne is an addiction treatment centre that creates unique holistic treatment plans for individuals who are facing heroin addiction and other types of substance abuse.

The residential treatment program offers a combination of one-on-one counselling, group therapy, and other effective treatments in a supportive setting with 24-hour care and supervision.

Patients who have stayed in the centre on an inpatient basis can receive ongoing help and support after they complete their stay, via an outpatient and reintegration support program.