What Makes Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin is a highly addictive substance due to the unique way it affects your brain. Using heroin changes brain structure and function. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for heroin addiction, starting with medical detox to reverse opioid dependence. Learn why heroin is so addictive and how to find effective addiction treatments.

Why is Heroin so Addictive?

Heroin is a processed substance made from the poppy plant. It is an opioid in the same drug category as prescription painkillers (e.g., Oxycontin, morphine) and fentanyl.

Heroin is highly addictive because of the way it affects the brain. When a person uses heroin, it crosses into the brain and binds to mu-opioid receptors. (1) Once there, it stimulates the release of the brain’s chemical dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Because heroin stimulates the dopamine system so heavily, it causes a rush of euphoria. It also changes the structure of the brain’s reward system.

The brain loves the feeling of having dopamine in the system. It begins to crave that euphoric feeling. That is one of the primary reasons people have difficulty controlling cravings and heroin use. Over time, opioid receptors become accustomed to the presence of heroin and do not respond as powerfully. This change in brain function is why people develop a tolerance, meaning they need to use more and more drugs to recapture that original euphoric feeling.

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Signs of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a powerful drug that affects people from all walks of life. People of any age, sex, racial or ethnic background, and socioeconomic status can become addicted to heroin. For that reason, heroin addiction may be hard to identify at first. Although, over time, the drugs start taking a toll on the user’s health, and signs of addiction become more noticeable.

With that said, there are some common signs of heroin addiction. (2) Because heroin slows down the central nervous system, people actively using heroin may speak and move slowly. They may appear sleepy or nod off. Heroin use also causes the pupils (black parts) of the eyes to become very small. As heroin leaves the system, it may cause withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, muscle and bone pain, chills, lack of sleep, itchiness, and anxiety.

It is also helpful to watch for behavioral signs of heroin addiction. (3) This could include changing social relationships, paranoid behavior, unexplained loss of money, social withdrawal, poor work performance, and wearing long sleeves to cover up scars.

Here are the 11 signs in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that outline the presence of an addiction to heroin:

  1. Heroin is often taken in more significant amounts or over a more extended period than initially intended.
  2. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to reduce or manage the use of heroin.
  3. A substantial amount of time is consumed in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of heroin use.
  4. Intense cravings to use heroin.
  5. Chronic heroin use causing the failure to fulfill essential obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. They continued heroin use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of heroin.
  7. Heroin use replaces significant social, professional, or recreational activities.
  8. Repeated heroin use in circumstances in which it is physically dangerous.
  9. Continued use of the drug, despite the knowledge of physical or psychological harm likely caused or exacerbated by heroin use.
  10. The presence of tolerance. In other words, a need for considerably increased amounts of the drug to achieve the same desired effect possible by lower doses in the past.
  11. Withdrawal, manifested by reducing or discontinuing heroin use.

How Long Does it Take to Get Addicted to Heroin?

How long it takes to get addicted to heroin differs on several factors, including the amount and frequency of use and the individual’s unique makeup. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) reports that approximately 25% of those who try heroin become addicted. Nowadays, with the presence of fentanyl in most of the heroin sold on the streets, becoming addicted and the risks involved with heroin use are much more significant.

Studies on different opioid drugs can also give insight into the length of time it takes to become addicted to heroin. Heroin is chemically similar to prescription opioid medications. A study issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in five people given opioid prescriptions for ten consecutive days became long-term users. (4) Therefore, as the time a patient takes opioids increases, so does the risk of becoming addicted.

The answer to how long it takes to get addicted to heroin is “it depends.” Some people try heroin once and never do it again. But you cannot get addicted to heroin after just one use. (5). Others begin repeatedly using heroin, often after using other opioids like prescription painkillers. Prior opioid painkiller use is a significant risk factor for heroin addiction, as those who previously used painkillers are 19 times more likely to start using heroin. (6)

Does Everyone Get Addicted to Heroin?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 75% of people who try heroin will become addicted. (7) That makes it one of the most addictive known substances. Anyone who uses heroin regularly will develop some degree of dependence on the drug. Dependence refers to your body becoming accustomed to the presence of the drug. This leads to tolerance (needing more heroin to get the same effect) and withdrawal (symptoms that occur when a person hasn’t used the drug in a while).

Not everyone who develops heroin dependence will become addicted to it. Addiction refers to behaviors like craving the drug and going out of one’s way to use it.

Often, the roots of addiction are in untreated mental health problems like depression, anxiety, trauma, and severe mental illness. Using heroin is a way to numb that emotional pain and get temporary relief. Over time, that desire to numb the pain interferes with everyday life and becomes an addiction.

Is Heroin Addiction a Disease?

Although some people define heroin addiction as a medical disease, that definition is limiting. Labeling addiction, a chronic illness, implies that one may never be fully overcome. While heroin addiction has some biological roots (e.g., genetics, family history of addiction, brain chemical dysfunction), other factors like poor mental health or social isolation are often fueled.

Telling people they have an untreatable disease is unproductive because it diminishes hope and the will to seek help. Additionally, we have witnessed thousands of patients who underwent WAISMANN TREATMENT™ and achieved full recovery throughout the years. So, telling people that they are doomed because they are currently suffering from a condition is dishonest and cruel in most cases.

What Percentage of Those Addicted to Heroin Recover?

It is challenging to estimate recovery rates from heroin addiction. There are no well-organized ways to track people suffering from heroin addiction yet. Furthermore, stigma, social isolation, and other factors make it hard to track this information accurately.

Some studies show that between 50 and 75% of people addicted to heroin eventually relapse. (8) Most relapses happen between 3 and 6 months of a person trying to quit. However, there is a lot of variability in relapse. One study of more than 240 addicted individuals followed for more than 30 years found that belief in one’s own ability to quit and addressing psychological problems were the most significant predictors of a successful recovery. (9)

This suggests that treatment programs which address mental health symptoms and provide a medical detox can be extremely helpful in improving recovery rates.

Finding Treatment for Heroin Addiction

How to Overcome Heroin Addiction

With rapid detox, complete detoxification can be accomplished very quickly and with nearly 100% success.

The good news is that heroin addiction is treatable. The first step is to undergo detox to clear the brain and body of opioid molecules. Without successful detoxification, a person can never achieve complete recovery from opioid addiction. One way to do this is to go “cold turkey” by quitting heroin abruptly. However, this causes a variety of unpleasant side effects that cause many people to relapse immediately. These side effects can be dangerous, particularly for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

A safer, more compassionate, and much more effective way to detox is to complete a medically supervised heroin detox program. A medical detox program like Waismann Method® takes place in an accredited hospital. That means that you have a team of medical professionals providing 24/7 support as you go through the detox process. At a hospital, doctors can also offer stronger medications at higher dosages to better ease withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, patients can also detox under sedation, where they sleep through the worst of a heroin withdrawal. With rapid detox, complete detoxification can be accomplished very quickly and with nearly 100% success.

The next step is to address the circumstances that kept a person stuck in addiction. These factors often include working through trauma, mental health issues, or other psychological factors contributing to heroin addiction.


Heroin is a type of opioid that crosses into the brain, creating chaos in your nervous system. Its ability to affect the dopamine system makes it very addictive, and anyone who tries the drug is vulnerable. However, there are effective treatments that can help to overcome heroin addiction, including medical detox. Accessing these heroin addiction treatments increases the likelihood of successful and permanent recovery.

“This is the experience of a lifetime. Staff is so caring. This has changed my life.”
— Heroin Treatment Patient

Are you ready to overcome heroin addiction? For the most successful rapid detox treatment, call us today!

See how our medically assisted detoxification program combines clinical excellence and a professional, caring environment, so you feel safe and welcome every moment of your stay.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Heroin Drug Facts
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse Easy-to-Read Drug Facts: Signs of Heroin Use
  3. Healthline: Signs of Heroin Addiction. Lifestyle changes caused by heroin addiction
  4. CDC: Characteristics of Initial Prescription Episodes and Likelihood of Long-Term Opioid Use
  5. Drug Policy Alliance: Can Using Heroin Once Make You Addicted?
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Prescription Opioids and Heroin Research Report
  7. SAMHSA: Preventing Heroin Use; Facts, Factors, and Strategies
  8. APA PsycNet®: Relapse Rates After Treatment for Heroin Addiction
  9. Journal of Addictive Diseases, Volume 26, 2007 – Issue 1: Predicting Long-Term Stable Recovery from Heroin Addiction

Written by Aurora Harklute
Aurora is a neuropsychologist and freelance writer with more than ten years of experience with a bachelor’s degree in human physiology, a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Aurora writes for a variety of industries within the substance abuse and medical fields. She also specializes in the impact of substance use on mood and cognition.

Reviewed by Clare Waismann, Registered Addiction Specialist (RAS), Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC), founder of Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence and Domus Retreat®. Clare Waismann as an authority and expert on opioid dependence, opioid use disorder, substance dependence, detoxification treatments, detox recovery, and other topics covered on RapidDetox.com.