Although the body and mind can recover quickly from the short-term effects of heroin use, the long-term effects can be permanent and, in many cases, deadly. The human brain adjusts quickly to the effects of heroin, and so physical as well as psychological dependence develops rapidly. The cost of heroin addiction in terms of physical deterioration are numerous and varied: frequent injections cause the user’s veins to collapse and lead to infections of the blood vessels and heart valves; tuberculosis and chronic arthritis has been reported in many addicts due to the poor condition of the immune system; and AIDS, hepatitis C and other contagious infections are common among addicts that share needles—one study even shows that 70 percent of newly diagnosed hep-C liver infections are found in heroin users.
Additional long-term effects of heroin use include bad teeth and inflammation of the gums as a result of ignoring good dental hygiene; frequent bouts of cold sweats, especially when the drug is leaving the body; breathing problems; muscular weakness and partial paralysis; impotence in men and menstrual disturbances in women; a severe loss of memory capacity and intellectual performance; a tendency towards being an introvert and avoiding friends and family; a loss of appetite; persistent insomnia; pustules on the face; and uncontrollable bouts of depression. And of course, the odds of entering a short- or long-term coma state when abusing heroin is a common reality.
Repeated heroin use also changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain, creating imbalances in neurons and hormones that are difficult to reverse. And as the white matter of the brain deteriorates, decision-making abilities and the ability to cope with stressful situations are compromised, and so the addict increasingly withdrawals from society and focuses on their addiction.
For women who are addicted to heroin during pregnancy there is a particularly tragic side effect: spontaneous abortions are common, as is a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome which occurs when heroin is passed through the placenta to the fetus causing the baby to become dependent on the drug along with the mother. Babies born addicted to heroin exhibit excessive crying, chronic fevers and seizures, irritability, slow weight gain, tremors, frequent diarrhea and vomiting and, in severe cases, premature death during infancy.
With the physical cost of heroin addiction behavior comes a monetary and social loss as well. Once addiction takes hold, addicts are often unable to maintain personal relationships or careers, and their lives become an uncontrollable spiral of drug-seeking behaviors that ignore any legal or financial consequences—a heroin addict can spend up to $150 a day feeding their habit. In short, finding and using heroin becomes the addict’s primary purpose in life, and of all drug and alcohol addicts admitted to treatment facilities in the United States nearly 14 percent enter due to an addiction to heroin.