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Teen Heroin Abuse: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Teen heroin abuse can be fatal. Heroin is a highly addictive drug. Even a single recreational use can lead to long-term addiction, a risk of overdosing, and increased likelihood of serious mental health problems.

Learning to recognize signs and symptoms of adolescent heroin abuse can save a teen’s life. If you think your teen might be abusing heroin, you should seek help immediately. Comprehensive treatment that addresses the underlying causes of teen substance use disorder can help adolescents achieve full, sustainable recovery.

Key Takeways

  • Heroin is a highly addictive substance that binds to pleasure receptors throughout the brain and body, leading to a euphoric high.
  • Risk factors for heroin use in teens include previous use of opioid prescription drugs, parental or family history of substance use, rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity, history of trauma, and underlying mental health issues.
  • Heroin has behavioral and physical effects, including nausea, slowed heart and breathing rates, social withdrawal, and changes in behavior and judgment.
  • Treatment for heroin addiction includes uncovering and healing root causes and learning healthy coping skills to replace drug abuse.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an addictive substance derived from morphine, which is found in opium poppy plants. It comes in both powder and “black tar” liquid forms and can be injected, smoked, sniffed, or snorted. Heroin-related paraphernalia may include lighters, glass pipes, needles, and small baggies containing white or brown powder or other residue.

Heroin was first produced commercially in 1898 by the Bayer Company. It was originally intended for pain relief and to help with certain respiratory conditions. Its sale was unregulated for more than 15 years. In 1924, the drug was completely outlawed after numerous users experienced addiction or overdose.

What Makes Heroin Addictive?

Heroin and all classes of opioids, including prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin, are extremely addictive. This is due in large part to the drug’s chemical impact on the body. Heroin binds to opioid receptors on cells throughout the brain and body, particularly those involved in decreasing pain and increasing pleasure.

Consequently, the person using the drug immediately feels relaxed, pain-free, and euphoric for a short time. This is typically followed by extreme sleepiness and “nodding” in and out of semi-consciousness. It can also lead to irregular heart rhythm, nausea, improper mental functioning, and respiratory failure due to overdosing.

Regular heroin use leads to tolerance, which means more of the drug is needed to produce the desired effects. Addiction and overdose can occur even after minimal usage.  

The addictive quality of heroin also has an emotional component. A teen may try to self-medicate their emotional pain or grief through illicit drug use. Heroin use can quickly become a way for teens to avoid distressing situations, environments, emotions, or relationships.

2023 Stats on Teen Heroin Abuse

In 2021, 13 percent of teens in the United States reported using illicit drugs such as heroin, according to the CDC. Slightly more females than males reported using illicit drugs (15 percent of teen girls vs. 12 percent of boys). Heroin is used increasingly in affluent and suburban neighborhoods.


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The overall percentage of teens who use illicit drugs is down from over 19 percent in 2011. But heroin-related overdose deaths are on the rise as compared to previous decades. Research suggests that heroin is the first opioid people use to get high, as opposed to prescription opioids. Heroin is closely related to prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Studies also show that prescription drug abuse in teens increased during COVID. Experts believe that the rise in teen heroin abuse and teen prescription drug abuse is a direct result of the anxiety, depression, and trauma that has teens have been experiencing over the last few years.

Risk Factors for Teen Heroin Addiction

Risk factors for teen heroin abuse and addiction include:

  • Using prescription opioids after an injury or surgery
  • Parental or other family history of substance use
  • Experiencing parental rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Isolation at school or at home
  • Early childhood adverse experiences, such as abuse or other trauma
  • Underlying mental health issues, including depression, trauma, or anxiety disorders

Understanding the risk factors of teen heroin use can help parents and families prevent or treat an adolescent heroin addiction before it becomes life threatening. Teens who abuse heroin are more likely to experience addiction and worsening mental health problems. Moreover, heroin abuse is associated with a higher risk of suicide. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 5 deaths by suicide in the United States involve opioid drugs such as heroin and prescription painkillers.

Short- and Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin use can negatively impact all areas of a teen’s life. The effects are wide-ranging and often upend an adolescent’s school, home, and personal life, as well as their mental and physical health.

Short-term effects of heroin use include physical symptoms (listed above) as well as impaired functioning and judgment. Long-term effects of heroin use include the following:

  • Insomnia
  • Diseases of the liver, kidney, and heart
  • Respiratory conditions, including pneumonia
  • Gut problems, including constipation and cramping
  • Collapsed veins (if heroin is injected)
  • Damaged nasal tissue (if heroin is snorted or sniffed)
  • Skin abscesses and sores
  • Exacerbated mental health problems
  • Problems with the law
  • Strained relationships with family

Signs of Heroin Use

Being able to spot the signs of heroin use is the first step in helping a teen face and overcome addiction. The following signs and symptoms may indicate heroin abuse in teens.

Physical signs of teen heroin abuse:

  • Labored or slowed breathing
  • Abnormally low heart rate
  • Itchiness or skin picking
  • Constricted pupils
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Scabs, track marks, or sores on body (if injecting heroin)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech, nodding in and out of consciousness
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes

Behavioral signs of teen heroin abuse:

  • Lying or hiding information
  • Scratching or picking at one’s skin
  • Confusion
  • Impaired judgment
  • Clouded thinking
  • Anxiety
  • Periods of intense euphoria followed by intense crashes
  • Mood swings
  • Withdrawal from normal activities
  • Isolation from loved ones

Teen Treatment for Heroin Abuse at Newport Academy

Heroin has a devastating impact on teens and families. Furthermore, heroin abuse in teens can be life threatening. Seeking treatment can save a teen’s life.

Once teens detox from heroin, the real work of recovery beings. At Newport Academy, substance abuse treatment addresses the underlying causes of teen heroin addiction. Adolescents receives care from a team of addiction specialists, which may include:

  • Doctors
  • Psychiatrists
  • Family therapists
  • Individual therapists
  • Experiential therapists, who specialize in music, art, Adventure Therapy, and more
  • Life skills coaches
  • Recovery counselors

We focus on treating underlying physical, mental, and emotional health issues in the whole family, to support long-term recovery and strengthen family bonds. Teens heal from trauma and attachment issues catalyzing heroin abuse. And they learn healthy, positive coping skills and emotional regulation techniques to address ongoing life stressors and prevent relapses. Additionally, adolescents in our residential and outpatient programs connect with others who are going through similar experiences.

Start the healing journey today. Contact us for a free teen mental health assessment.

Teen boy in treatment for teen heroin abuse

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does someone act on heroin?
  • What is the prevalence of heroin and opioid abuse in adolescence?
  • What is the most powerful influence on adolescent drug use?
  • What does heroin feel like?


CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System

Addict Behav. 2017 Nov; 74: 63–66.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The Trevor Project