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Also known as: Hammer | H | Smack | Horse

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 breathing and heart rate.

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 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.

How many people use heroin?

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

The effects of heroin will vary from person to person depending on characteristics of the:

  • Individual (user) – 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.
  • Drug – the amount used, its purity, and whether it is smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected.
  • Setting (environment) – 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 of Heroin Use

Short-Term Effects of Higher Doses of Heroin

Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

Shallow breathing

Breathing becomes very depressed

Loss of appetite

Reduced concentration, coordination and balance

Heart rate slows

Chronic constipation


Pupils narrow to pinpoints

Female: irregular menstruation and infertility

Feeling of wellbeing

Skin is cold to touch

Male: impotence



Chest and bronchial problems

Nausea and vomiting




Method of use

There are dangerous effects associated with the method of use. Injecting heroin can result in blocked blood vessels that can cause major damage to the body’s organs, inflamed blood vessels and abscesses, blood poisoning, bacterial infections which may damage the heart valves, vein collapse, infection at injection site, bruising or more serious injuries if users inject into an artery or tissue.

See the Staying Safe section for information on protecting yourself.



Tolerance develops very quickly with heroin because of the short acting nature of the drug. This means that a person needs more of the drug to achieve the same effects they felt previously with smaller amounts.


Dependence develops very quickly with heroin because of the short acting nature of the drug. This means that the drug becomes central to a user’s life.


Stopping or cutting down heroin use can be difficult. The severity of withdrawal symptoms and how long they will last will vary from person to person. People cope better with heroin withdrawal if they understand what is going to happen. Withdrawal symptoms usually peak between the two and four days following last use. However, minor symptoms such as sleep difficulties can last for another two to three weeks. Some common heroin withdrawal symptoms include runny eyes and nose, sneezing, yawning, sweating, feeling agitated and irritable, goosebumps, hot and cold flushes, strong urges to use heroin, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, back pain, pain in legs or arms, headache, poor sleep and poor concentration.

While a person may have withdrawn from the body’s physical dependence on heroin there are a number of other psychological factors that may lead to an increased risk of using heroin again. Before commencing withdrawal from heroin it is important to plan ahead, work out prior to withdrawal how to deal with difficult situations that may lead to using heroin again.

When planning to withdraw from heroin use it is important to consider how to deal with:

  • Physical withdrawal symptoms
  • Commitment to changing behaviour
  • High risk situation (such as cravings)
  • A relapse. Such as exploring the original reasons for stopping heroin use and looking at the pros and cons of returning to heroin use. Counselling can be very useful in exploring relapse issues.
  • The time you once devoted to heroin (develop new interests and friends that are enjoyable and rewarding).


Overdose occurs when the level of intoxication from the drug reaches a point where it begins to produce physical and/or psychological harm. Overdose from heroin occurs as a result of the depressant properties of the drug. Heroin can slow a person’s heart rate and breathing rate. In some cases, a person may experience heart failure and respiratory failure, which may lead to coma and death.

The risk of overdose generally increases with a larger dose. As the strength and content of street heroin is unknown it can be difficult to judge the dose, increasing the risk of overdose.

A drug overdose is life threatening. An ambulance should be called immediately (dial 000 ) if someone starts experiencing any of the symptoms of a depressant overdose:

Depressant Drug Overdose Signs and Symptoms - Heroin | prescription opioids | methadone

  • Shallow pulse and breathing
  • Blue lips and nails
  • Pupils like pinpoints
  • Disorientated
  • In and out of conversation ‘on the nod’ and feeling very tired
  • Snoring or gurgling sounds (like sleep apnoea or in a very deep sleep)
  • Slumped posture
  • Not responding
  • Unconscious
  • Not breathing, coma.

It is not necessary for someone to have all of these signs or symptoms for them to be overdosing. Only a few could still mean they are in trouble and need emergency help.


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 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 prescribed and over-the-counter medicines.


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 will increase the effect of both drugs much like when a high dose is taken. For example, mixing heroin with alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other depressants can be fatal as it increases the risk of overdose and heart failure.

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.

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

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 range from a $2,000 fine and/or two years in prison to a $100 000 fine and/or imprisonment for 25 years. A person convicted of a drug offence can receive a criminal record, which can lead to difficulties in getting a job, health insurance, credit and/or visas for overseas travel.

Heroin and 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.


There are a variety of treatment pathways available for people with heroin-related problems. The drug(s) used and the availability of services as well as the user’s health, desired outcome, support network and unique circumstances need to be taken into consideration. Deciding on the most appropriate treatment pathway is best done in consultation with an alcohol and other drug counsellor. 

For up-to-date information about Heroin or other drugs, call the Alcohol and Drug Support Line or Parent  and Family Drug Support Line, or visit:

See the Staying Safe section for information on safer use.


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