What does it look like?
As it’s cut with different substances, the colour of street heroin in the UK ranges from brownish white to brown.
Heroin is a drug made from morphine, which is extracted from the opium poppy.
Drugs made from opium are called opiates, and are often used as painkillers.
What does it taste/smell like?
Heroin can have a vinegary smell but can also be odourless. It normally has a bitter taste.
By smoking it
Users heat the heroin on a surface like tin foil and then inhale the smoke – this is sometimes called ‘chasing the dragon’.
By injecting it
Heroin can be dissolved in water and then injected, this is very dangerous and can lead to overdose.
By snorting it
Heroin can be snorted.
How does it make you feel?
Heroin is a very strong drug and the first dose of heroin can cause dizziness and vomiting.
People take heroin to feel:
How does it make people behave?
Heroin can make people seem happy, relaxed, euphoric and sleepy.
How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size, whether you’ve eaten and what other drugs you may have also taken.
To kick in:
When smoked, the effects of heroin usually kick in within a few minutes.
How long it lasts:
The effects can last for around an hour.
The after effects of smoking heroin can last for several hours, so it’s important to be careful if you are using any other drugs or alcohol in that time.
How long will it be detectable?
Heroin will typically show up in a urine sample for 2 to 3 days.
How long a drug can be detected for depends on how much is taken and which testing kit is used. This is only a general guide.
Physical health risks
It’s very easy to overdose from heroin, which kills far more people in the UK than any other illegal drug.
If you overdose you may begin to feel very sleepy. Your breathing will slow and you can fall into a coma. If your breathing slows too much you could die.
If you have been taking heroin regularly you may have built up some tolerance. However, if you then stop taking heroin for just for a few days, your tolerance will rapidly drop and you risk an overdose if you simply take the same dose you previously took.
Injecting heroin is very dangerous. It’s easier to overdose from injecting than from other ways of taking the drug. You also risk damaging veins and developing infections and blood clots. Sharing needles and syringes is also very dangerous as you run the risk of catching or spreading a virus, such as HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
If heroin is taken with other drugs, particularly other sedative drugs such as alcohol, then overdose is more likely. Other sedating drugs – such as benzodiazepine tranquillisers or methadone – are also linked with deaths from heroin overdose.
There's also a risk of death due to inhaling vomit. Heroin sedates you and stops you from properly coughing. If you vomit you won’t be able to cough and clear your throat. The vomit can then block your breathing.
Injecting heroin can do nasty damage to your veins and arteries, and has been known to lead to gangrene (death of body tissue, usually a finger, toe or a limb) and to infections.
What is heroin cut with?
Heroin is often cut with other things, for example highly-potent opioids (like fentanyls) which are even more dangerous than heroin itself.
Other substances including sedatives like benzodiazepines and barbiturates can also be added to heroin.
It’s common for heroin to be mixed with a variety of other substances, such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, quinine or paracetamol – as these increase the weight and the drug dealer’s profits.
Is it dangerous to mix with other drugs?
Yes, every time you mix drugs you take on new risks – but some drugs are more dangerous than others to mix.
If heroin is taken with other drugs, including alcohol, an overdose is more likely. Other downers (such as benzodiazepine tranquillisers or methadone), are also linked with deaths from heroin overdose.
So, heroin is particularly dangerous to mix with:
Can you get addicted?
Yes, heroin is highly addictive. Over time, the effects of heroin on the brain can cause cravings and a strong drive to keep on using.
As heroin is used on a regular basis, the body builds up a tolerance, so that users have to start taking more and more.
Doctors have developed a number of effective ways to treat addiction to street heroin. These include using certain safer drugs to replace the street heroin, such as methadone and buprenorphine.
Other drugs that block the effects of heroin (so you can't get a high) are available once you become drug-free. All these drug treatments are intended to supplement the counselling and social support that’s normally needed to help in becoming drug-free and to recover from addiction.
This is a Class A drug, which means it's illegal to have for yourself, give away or sell.
Possession can get you up to 7 years in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Supplying someone else, even your friends, can get you life in prison, an unlimited fine or both.
Like drink-driving, driving when high is dangerous and illegal. If you’re caught driving under the influence, you may receive a heavy fine, driving ban, or prison sentence.
If the police catch people supplying illegal drugs in a home, club, bar or hostel, they can potentially prosecute the landlord, club owner or any other person concerned in the management of the premises.
If you are worried about your use, you can call FRANK on 0300 1236600 for friendly, confidential advice.
Frequently asked questions about heroin
My child has been on heroin for years, what can I do?
Dealing with a son or daughter that has a serious drug problem can be an emotional rollercoaster.
The withdrawal symptoms from heroin can be very severe and craving can continue to be a problem for quite some time.
It may take several attempts before your son or daughter successfully breaks their addiction even with medical support. Remember, your son or daughter must want to stop using drugs first.
There are however, many different methods of treatment and support groups which your son or daughter can use to encourage them.