Pulmonary complications of using heroin

Pulmonary complications of using heroin

October 04, 2019

Pulmonary complications of using heroin

Addiction Substance Abuse

Heroin is a synthetic opioid which is 2 to 4 times more potent than morphine. Because of heroin’s remarkable ability to dull pain, some people who chronically use the drug might not notice when they become ill due to excessive use. When people hear about sicknesses associated with heroin, most people think about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or hepatitis, two diseases that result from the use of improperly sterilized needles; however, heroin itself can cause multiple diseases and infections, many of which affect the lungs. These lung complications are just as likely in people who inject heroin as people who smoke it.

Heroin depresses the nervous system, which not only slows down brain functions, but also organ functions that the brain controls, such as the heart and the lungs. Because a heroin user breathes too slowly, the lungs are unable to properly expel bacteria and fluid. Heroin users are often afflicted with the same lung diseases that affect people under anesthesia.

Chronic heroin users run the risk of developing serious lung conditions like pulmonary edema, empyema, pneumonia, and bronchiectasis, among others. Given below is a brief explanation of these conditions.

Pulmonary edema

Pulmonary edema is a life-threatening condition in which fluid fills the lungs. Chronic heroin users often develop this condition slowly, as each time they use the drug, a little more fluid gets caught in the lungs. Heroin users can also suffer from acute pulmonary edema (pulmonary edema that suddenly develops), usually during overdose.

Symptoms of long-term pulmonary edema include:

  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down flat
  • Swelling in lower extremities
  • Fatigue
  • Symptoms of acute pulmonary edema include:
  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing when lying down
  • A feeling of suffocation or drowning
  • Wheezing
  • Sense of impending doom
  • Coughing up frothy mucus, possibly tinged with blood

In both long-term and acute cases, rapid treatment is necessary. Patients might need to have fluid sucked from their lungs; a process called aspiration. Patients might also be given diuretics or heart medications for relief. In some cases, doctors will need to perform surgery to open the chest and directly remove the fluid from the lungs. Even with treatment, some cases of pulmonary edema are fatal.


Empyema is a large amount of pus that collects in the space between the lungs and the chest wall. Because heroin is a cough suppressant, foreign matter is not easily expelled from the lungs, which could result in an infection.

Symptoms of empyema include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of malaise
  • Dry cough
  • Excessive sweating
  • Weight loss

Treatment for empyema often includes antibiotics to fight the underlying infection. Doctors might also use a chest tube to drain pus from the area in which it has collected. Most people recover from empyema. If empyema occurs concurrently with pneumonia, however, the risk of death or permanent lung damage increases.


Heroin users have greater risk of contracting pneumonia than the general population. Pneumonia is an infection in either one or both the lungs. Pneumonia can lead to other complications, such as empyema, lung abscess, and dangerous amounts of bacteria in the bloodstream.

Symptoms of pneumonia include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Coughing blood
  • Bluish tint to skin

Some forms of pneumonia are not serious and can be treated at home; however, heroin users likely have weakened lungs and are more likely to suffer from complications. Treatment is usually accomplished via antibiotics.


Bronchiectasis  is a condition that can develop in heroin users after multiple infections damage the lungs and airways. With bronchiectasis, airways become scarred, widened, and flabby. Over time, the airways can no longer clear themselves properly of mucus, allowing bacteria to flourish and another series of infections to occur. Bronchiectasis can also lead to respiratory failure if the airways are completely blocked.

Symptoms of bronchiectasis include:

  • Chronic coughing, sometimes with blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Foul breath
  • Bluish skin
  • Wheezing

Bronchiectasis cannot be cured, but some medicines might alleviate its effects. Some medications can help thin mucus, whereas others can aid in emptying the airways via coughing. Doctors often administer antibiotics to fight the infections caused by bronchiectasis.

Seeking help

Lung disorders are very common in people who abuse heroin, but other complications can also arise, such as collapsed veins, arthritis, heart infections, and liver disease. Heroin is not only risky because of its potential for overdose, but also because it can lead to the development of other serious diseases that could ultimately result in death. One must, therefore, seek the help of a professional in dealing with heroin addiction. The preliminary step of addressing any type of addiction is detoxification, a process in which the body is freed of the substance and its toxic metabolites.

Invictus Health Group, a network of detox treatment centers and substance abuse treatment rehabs, can help you connect with the best addiction treatment programs suited to your requirements with just a few simple questions. For more information about the kind of addiction treatment help we can offer, call our 24/7 helpline 866-548-0190 and speak with a member of our admissions team. You can also chat online with a representative for further assistance.

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