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Heroin is an addictive drug with a lot of serious side effects. Accidental overdoses are common and can be fatal.

If you use heroin often you can become addicted and risk developing a range of physical, psychological, legal, financial and social problems.

Find out how drug use can impact your life.

What is heroin?

Heroin is made from the opium poppy. It belongs to the family of drugs called opioids along with prescription medicines such as morphine, codeine, pethidine and methadone.

Heroin comes as a fine white powder, off-white granules or tiny brown ‘rocks’.

It is usually injected into a vein, but it can be smoked or snorted as well. It is also known as horse, hammer, H, dope, smack, junk, gear, the dragon, harry, black tar, white dynamite, homebake, china white, Chinese H, poison and Dr Harry.

Effects of heroin use

Heroin is a depressant drug which means it slows down the messages to and from your brain. One of these messages is to breathe – heroin can stop you breathing.

Heroin produces an immediate ‘rush’, which makes people who use it feel good, as well as drowsy and very relaxed. It also dulls physical and psychological pain.

People who take heroin have slurred speech, slow breathing and reduced coordination. If they take a high dose, they can have an irregular heartbeat, very slow breathing, blue lips, and cold and clammy skin.

People who use heroin regularly are more likely to get skin, heart and lung infections, loss of sex drive in men, menstrual and fertility problems for women, and risk infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C from sharing needles.

In time, users become tolerant to heroin and need larger and larger doses to get the same rush. Eventually, no dose is enough for them.

Heroin addiction

Heroin is very addictive and kicking the habit can be tough. Getting off heroin takes a long time, and might include using medicines such as methadone (a prescription opioid drug) along with counselling and support groups. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin start 6 to 24 hours after the last dose and last about a week. They include cravings for heroin, restlessness, depression, yawning, cramps, vomiting and goosebumps.

Heroin overdose

Accidental overdoses are common because users don’t know how ‘pure’ their supply is. Batches often contain other substances making them very poisonous. Overdoses also happen when too much heroin is injected into a vein, or if it’s used with alcohol and other drugs. An overdose can lead to coma and death. Heroin’s effects can be reversed with a drug called naloxone.

Find out about heroin's effect on mental health. You can find information on getting help on the Drug Help website or by calling the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

Access to overdose-reversing medication

Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. A pilot program, funded by the Australian Government, is offering certain individuals in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia this medication (including the nasal spray Nyxoid) for free and without a prescription.

Learn more here about the take home naloxone pilot.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2019

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