Opioid Facts for Teens
Opioids and Heroin

This is Archived Content. This content is available for historical purposes only. It may not reflect the current state of science or language from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Find current research and publications at nida.nih.gov.

What is heroin?

20% of 12th graders said they could easily get heroin if they wanted to.7

Heroin is made from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of opium poppy plants in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Colombia. Heroin can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked.

Common names for heroin include Big H, Horse, Hell Dust, and Smack.

What is the connection between opioids and heroin?

Heroin is a type of opioid. Prescription pain relievers and heroin are chemically similar and can produce similar effects.

In some communities, heroin is cheaper and easier to get than prescription opioids. Because of this, people who are addicted to prescription opioids sometimes switch to using heroin instead.

Data from 2011 showed that an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin8,11,12 and about 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids.8,11,12 More recent data suggest that heroin is frequently the first opioid people use. In a study of those entering treatment for opioid use disorder, approximately one-third reported heroin as the first opioid they used regularly to get high.13

Some people who get addicted to opioid pain relievers switch to heroin because it's cheaper and easier to get. However, only a small fraction of people who misuse pain relievers switch to heroin. Less than 4 percent of people who had misused prescription pain medicines started using heroin within 5 years.8 Preventing opioid misuse and ensuring people with opioid addictions get the treatment they need will also reduce the number of people using and addicted to heroin.

How many people use heroin?

Heroin use has been increasing in recent years. The number of people using heroin in the past year has more than doubled in the past 15 years, to nearly one million in 2016, including 13,000 12- to 17-year-olds.1

What are the effects of heroin on the brain and body?

Just like other opioids, heroin binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and body that send a rush of dopamine and extreme happiness through your body. Other short-term effects include dry mouth, nausea and vomiting, severe itching, and clouded thinking. If the dose is too strong, it can cause you to stop breathing, resulting in death.

Long-term effects include insomnia, heart infections, liver and kidney disease, collapsed veins in people who inject heroin, depression, and addiction.

People who inject drugs are at an increased risk of getting HIV or hepatitis C. Both of these diseases are transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. When people share needles or other drug equipment, they can come in contact with these fluids. HIV, and less often hepatitis C, are also spread through unprotected sex, which drug use makes more likely.