Characteristics of Heroin Use and Addiction

Heroin use and addiction is at an all time high.  An increasing number of people addicted to prescription opioids and a decrease in the cost of heroin have contributed to a steady and dramatic increase in usage rate since 2007.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 675,000 Americans reported using heroin in the last year[1].  To further add to the growing concern surrounding the scope of heroin use, consider the following statistics:


  • The number of first-time heroin users has nearly doubled in the last 10 years;
  • Nearly 25% of people who use heroin become addicted to it;
  • 467,000 people met the criteria for heroin dependence or addiction in 2012, more than double the number meeting the same criteria in 2002;
  • Heroin-related deaths have quadrupled in the last 10 years.


Further complicating the issue of heroin use and addiction is the fact that heroin users often try to hide their drug use. Heroin users and addicts, do however, tend to demonstrate common signs and symptoms.

Characteristics of Heroin Use

Heroin is an illegal and extremely addictive drug processed from the seed pods of various poppy plants.  The specific type of heroin, its potency, and the preferred method of use often depend on geographic location and how the drug was produced.  For example, in the United States, heroin is commonly found in white or brown powder form east of the Mississippi river; while “black tar” heroin is more common west of the Mississippi[2].


Pure heroin is a white powder; when produced for sale, it is often diluted (or “cut”) with white powder, sugar, flour, or even powdered milk.  The powdered form of heroin is most commonly smoked or snorted, both are preferred methods of new or experimental users.


“Black tar” heroin, the cheaper and less pure form of heroin, earns the name from its dark color and sticky texture; it may also be extremely hard and look like coal.  Black tar heroin is manufactured using crude, unrefined methods that tend to leave many impurities in the drug.  Black tar users typically dissolve or melt heroin into liquid form before injecting it into the muscles or directly into their veins.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use

Heroin users smoke, snort, or inject the drug. If you suspect heroin use or abuse, a few common signs to look for include the presence of drug paraphernalia and specific physical symptoms demonstrated by the heroin user.

Drug Paraphernalia


Injecting heroin continues to be the preferred method among users.  Users who inject heroin require a needle and syringe to do so.  The presence of a syringe without medical need or prescription is a strong indicator of heroin use.   The syringe is also likely to be accompanied by a spoon, a cotton ball or cotton swab filter, and a lighter.  Users typically keep this equipment in a “kit” that is easily hidden in a bathroom or bedroom.


Metal or Glass Pipes

Similar to the pipes used to smoke methamphetamines, heroin users will often use metal or glass pipes to smoke heroin.


Small Plastic Baggies, Balloons, or Plastic Wrapped Packages

Heroin is packaged and sold in small plastic baggies, balloons, or even plastic wrap.

Specific Physical Symptoms of Heroin Use

Common physical symptoms associated with heroin use include[3]:

  • Dry mouth
  • Flush skin
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Severe itching
  • Slowed breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Constricted pupils
  • Injection marks (often referred to as “track marks”) on arms, hands, near veins, or even between the toes.

With heroin abuse at an all-time high, and 1 out of every 4 users becoming dependent on heroin, suspected use by a friend or loved one requires immediate action.  Do you suspect a friend or loved one is using or abusing heroin or other opioids?  Please, CALL 888-786-9570 TO LEARN HOW YOU CAN HELP right now.




[1] “What is the scope of heroin use in the United States …” 2014. 13 Mar. 2016

[2] “Epidemiologic Trends – National Institute on Drug Abuse.” 2012. 13 Mar. 2016

[3] “Drug addiction Symptoms – Mayo Clinic.” 2014. 13 Mar. 2016