Statistics on Heroin Addiction, One of America’s Longest-Lasting Addiction Nightmares

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Photo by Mikhail Nilov/

What is the scope of heroin addiction today? Heroin has been around for centuries, and while many might think the drug has faded in popularity due to the rise of other, newer, more potent synthetic opioids, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Millions of drug users still consume heroin daily, and it leads to thousands of deaths annually.

Everyone needs to understand what heroin is and how to spot the short- and long-term side effects of heroin addiction so they can step in and help should a loved one become hooked on the dangerous substance.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance derived from the seed pods of various poppy plants. Depending on how it is made, heroin can appear as a white or brown powder or as a black sticky substance (black tar heroin). The poppy plants used to make heroin are grown in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and some Latin American countries.

Heroin is addictive and toxic. In addition to the harmful effects the drug has on the user, heroin addiction also produces society-wide harm, often in the form of hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, fetal effects, crime, violence, and disruptions in family, workplace, and educational environments. Each of these by itself is a crisis-level issue; combined, heroin produces devastating effects on society.

What Is the Scope of Heroin Use?

young man heroin addict

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 1.1 million Americans over the age of 12 are addicted to heroin. Typically a drug of choice for adults, heroin is not commonly sought among young people. An estimated 0.3% of 8th graders, 0.2% of 10th graders, and 0.3% of 12th graders report using heroin in the past 12 months. In 2021, the most recent year verified data are available, 9,173 people died from heroin overdoses.

According to another report, although the overall number of heroin users is low, that number is growing. In 2013, about 681,000 Americans used heroin. Today, more than one million are hooked on the drug. About 169,000 people try heroin for the first time each year, many of whom become addicted to the drug.

What Are the Side Effects of Using Heroin?

Heroin affects the body in myriad ways. Once heroin enters the brain, the drug binds to opioid receptors in the brain, leading users to feel a surge of pleasurable sensations, typically referred to as the high one experiences from using the drug.

The intensity and duration of the high one experiences from using heroin is a function of how much of the drug they took and how often/how much they usually use. Shortly after taking heroin, short-term side effects usually follow, including:

  • Dry mouth
  • A feeling of drowsiness
  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • A heavy feeling in the extremities
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slowed mental function, heart function, and breathing
  • Severe itching following the warm flush in the skin

Long-term effects of heroin use begin to set in when one uses the drug over time. Repeated heroin use changes the physical structure and physiology of the brain. For example, some studies have shown that repeat heroin use deteriorates the brain’s white matter, which can harm one’s decision-making abilities. People who use the drug over time may also notice changes in their behavior and ability to respond to stressful situations.

Another long-term effect of heroin use is tolerance, the body’s natural effort to build up a resistance to the drug when one uses it over time. Unfortunately, the longer one uses heroin, the more they will need to use it to get the same effects from it.

How Common Are Heroin Overdoses?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, thousands of Americans die from heroin overdoses each year. From 1999 through 2010, heroin overdose fatalities remained stable, around 2,000 deaths per year. But beginning in 2010, deaths started to spike, reaching a peak of 15,482 heroin-related deaths in 2017. Though heroin deaths have come down since then, they are still quite high each year. Around 9,000 to 10,000 people die from heroin overdoses annually in the U.S.

How Has Heroin Played a Role in the Addiction Epidemic?

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Today, heroin abuse is on the rise. Even though the drug is used by a relatively small number of people (just over one million Americans), the number of people who use it has been growing. Since 2007, the use of the drug has steadily increased as people who struggled with addiction sought readily available, cheaper alternatives to opioid painkillers.

Sadly, prescription opioid painkillers are much to blame for a surge in heroin use. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, pharmaceutical corporations pressured doctors to prescribe more opioid painkillers to patients, and millions of Americans became addicted to painkillers as a result. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, doctors began pulling back on their prescribing, and millions of addicted individuals had to look elsewhere to get their fix. Many turned to heroin as a cheaper, more available alternative.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this trajectory and timeline is called the “Three Waves of the Opioid Epidemic.” The first wave was the exponential increase in the prescribing of opioid painkillers that led to millions of Americans becoming addicted to the very drugs that were supposed to help them. The second phase was the surge in heroin addiction as addicts sought alternatives to the painkillers that were becoming more and more difficult to obtain. The third wave, the one Americans are in now, began in the mid-2010s with the introduction of extremely potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, fentanyl now being the leading cause of drug-related death in America.

The Need for Heroin Addiction Treatment

People who use heroin must seek help at qualified, residential drug addiction treatment centers. Heroin can be lethal, even the first time one uses it. One cannot “just use heroin once” or experiment with it “safely.” If you know someone using heroin, please help them find and enter a qualified addiction treatment center as soon as possible.


  • NIDA. “Heroin.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2024.
  • “What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2024.
  • SAMHSA. “Trends in Heroin Use in the United States: 2002 to 2013.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
  • NIDA. “What are the immediate (short-term) effects of heroin use?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018.
  • NIDA. “What are the long-term effects of heroin use?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018.
  • NIDA. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2024.
  • CDC. “Understanding the Epidemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023.


Editorial Staff