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What is Heroin? Health Effects, Risks & Use

Also known as: Hammer | H | Smack | Horse | Gear | Dope | Harry

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What is heroin?

What is heroin?

Heroin is a depressant drug, which means it sedates the central nervous system. Depressants affect the central nervous system by reducing the activity of certain chemicals in the brain. This slows down the body, including the part of the brain that controls breathing and heart rate.

How is heroin used?

Heroin is usually injected, but can be swallowed, smoked or snorted. The effects of heroin usually last from two to four hours. When heroin is injected it can affect the body immediately.

Where does heroin come from?

Heroin belongs to a group of drugs called narcotic analgesics or opioids. These drugs are very strong pain relievers. Opioids are derived from a substance produced by the opium poppy which, when dried is known as opium. Heroin is manufactured from morphine or codeine, which are chemicals in the juice of the opium poppy head. Heroin is a stronger and more addictive drug than morphine or codeine. People have used opium for several thousand years in a variety of cultures. Heroin was first synthesised in 1898 in a London hospital to treat morphine addiction.

The opium poppy grows in many parts of the world. In Australia, crops are grown legally in Tasmania for medical purposes. Most of the illegal heroin in Australia comes from Asia and the Middle East.

How many people use heroin?

The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey reported that 0.2% of Western Australians aged 14 years and older had used heroin in the previous 12 months.

Health Effects and Risks

Health Effects and Risks

The effects of heroin will vary depending on:

  • the person– mood, physical size, health, gender, previous experience with heroin, expectations of the drug, personality, whether the person has had food and whether other drugs have been taken.
  • the drug – the amount used, its purity, how often it is used, and whether it is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
  • the place – whether the person is using with friends, on his/her own, in a social setting or at home, at work or before driving.

Short-term effects

  • Shallow breathing
  • Constipation
  • Reduced concentration, coordination and balance
  • Feeling of wellbeing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Slurred speech

Short-term effects of high-doses

  • Breathing becomes very depressed
  • Heart rate slows
  • Pupils narrow to pinpoints
  • Skin is cold to touch
  • Overdose and death

Long-term effects

  • Loss of appetite
  • Female: irregular menstruation and infertility
  • Male: impotence
  • Chest and bronchial problems and pneumonia
  • Dependence
  • Skin abscesses

Heroin, pregnancy and breastfeeding

Using heroin while pregnant can harm an unborn child. Babies born to women using heroin are usually underdeveloped and suffer from breathing problems and infections in the first few weeks of life. Heroin can also cause premature labour; babies may be born so early that they need intensive care. The baby’s poor health can also be associated with the poor health and nutrition of their mothers.

Heroin use during pregnancy can also lead to complications for the pregnant woman, including preterm labour and the risk of the placenta becoming detached. This can lead to complications for both mother and the unborn child.

Heroin can cross the placenta and cause the unborn baby to become dependent on the drug. Babies of heroin-dependent mothers can suffer withdrawal symptoms after they are born. They often need special care in hospital.

Injecting heroin also increases the risk of HIV infection and other diseases for both the mother and the baby.

Pregnant women who want to stop heroin need to seek medical advice. Sudden withdrawal from heroin may harm the baby and cause poor growth, miscarriage or premature labour.

It is recommended that women check with their doctor (or other health professional) if they are using or planning to use drugs while pregnant or breastfeeding, including any prescribed and over-the-counter medicines.

Method of use

Injecting heroin increases the risk of transmitting a blood borne diseases such as Hepatitis C & HIV, if sharing equipment occurs.


Impact on Your life

Impact on Your life

Heroin use can impact on your life in many ways. It can lead to relationship, financial and legal problems. 

Heroin and relationship problems

Drug use can lead to social and emotional problems and can affect relationships with family and friends. When people are under the influence of drugs, changes can occur in their behaviour depending on how they feel (for example, sleepy, euphoric or sick). Friends may not be able to rely on the person as their moods can change depending whether they are using or not. Long-term use can lead to serious health and financial problems, which can also affect relationships.

Maintaining a job whilst using heroin is also difficult and may put extra strain on a relationship if the individual has to move back in with relatives due to lack of employment. This can also put added financial strain on relatives or friends to help support the individual.

Heroin and financial problems

The street price of heroin changes depending on availability and market trends. The cost of purchasing heroin can lead to financial problems for both occasional and regular users.

Heroin and the law

Misuse of Drugs Act

In Western Australia, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981, it is illegal to use, possess, manufacture or supply heroin. Offences under this Act carry heavy fines and/or prison sentences.

Penalties vary depending on the offence:

  • Possession offences: up to $2,000 in fines and/or two years in prison.
  • Supply offences: up to $100,000 in fines and/or 25 years in prison.

A person convicted of a drug offence can receive a criminal record, which can lead to difficulties in getting a job, health insurance, credit or visas for overseas travel.

Heroin & Driving

In Western Australia, it is against the law for anyone to drive with the presence of an illicit drug prescribed within the Road Traffic Act 1974, or impaired by a drug.

Like alcohol, heroin is a depressant. It causes drowsiness, reduces coordination, slows down reaction time and may also affect vision. It is for these reasons that driving under the influence of heroin is very dangerous.

Heroin, taken in combination with alcohol, can greatly impair driving performance.

Heroin and other drugs

Heroin and other drugs

Using more than one drug at a time can have unpredictable and dangerous effects. Mixing heroin with other drugs increases the risk of harm.

Combining heroin with other depressant drugs increases the effect of both drugs. This poses significant health risks and an increased risk of overdose.  For example, mixing heroin with alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other depressants can be fatal as it increases the risk of overdose and heart failure. Mixing heroin or other opioids with stimulants can result in much larger amounts of both drugs being used without the person realising, increasing the risk of opioid overdose.

Quitting Options

Quitting Options

People decide to quit using heroin for a lot of reasons including it is harming their physical and/or mental health and well being, their relationships with friends and others they care about, or because they are starting new employment and may be drug tested.

Thinking about quitting your heroin use? Worried you may struggle? You are not alone. Help is only a phone call away.

You can call a qualified alcohol and other drug counsellor at the Alcohol and Drug Support Line. The counsellors can assist in planning your quit attempt, and talk with you about the options available to assist you. You can call them 24/7 on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (country callers).

See the Staying Safe section for harm reduction tips.

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