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Sniffing Heroin: Not a Big Deal Compared to Injecting, Right?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Everyone knows that injecting heroin is objectively dangerous. In addition to the damage caused by the substance itself, using a syringe and needle increases your risks of overdose, in addition to getting an infection. Those who use heroin intravenously have a higher risk of death than those who use heroin by other means.

That’s why lots of adolescents feel better about snorting, or sniffing, heroin instead. Naively, they don’t think it’s as big of a deal: “At least I’m not injecting it,” they say. This thinking could be born out of a lack of understanding of the dangers and risks. Or, they might be downplaying their use because they’re afraid to admit they are addicted. Sniffing carries less of a stigma than shooting up, and teens can hide it better, at least initially—no injection marks or needles involved. Smoking heroin (also called “chasing the dragon”) also carries less of a stigma, and is less noticeable, than injecting. For these reasons, more than half of heroin users prefer these methods, rather than shooting up (Novak, 2011).

But Is It Actually Less Risky?

Admittedly, snorting or smoking heroin is thought to be a bit safer because the drug needs to first pass through the sinuses or lungs before it gets to the bloodstream. The route is longer, so the effects are not as immediate or severe. In contrast, injecting heroin shoots it straight into the blood, and then the brain. That’s why it takes just a few seconds for teens to get a high when they inject, vs. about 10 minutes when you use other methods. It’s also why some adolescents think sniffing or smoking heroin is a bit less risky.

However, even sniffing or smoking heroin is life-threatening. It causes permanent damage to sinuses and lung tissue, and it can quickly lead to addiction as it progresses to injecting.

Heroin is Heroin: It is 100% Life-Threatening

Snorting heroin regularly is proven to cause damage to your sinuses, nasal cartilage, throat, sense of smell and taste, and more. Smoking it can lead to serious asthma attacks. And both snorting and smoking heroin still lead to impaired cognition, impaired mental faculties, slowed breathing (which can cause coma), and mental health issues. Because heroin is heroin. Chronic opioid use damages every single one of the major organs: the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, immune system, digestive system, and endocrine system. No matter the preferred route, using heroin is still using a dangerous drug.

And then you have the problem of rapidly increasing tolerance. Heroin is extremely addicting, for both teens and adults. Besides the medical risks involved, it doesn’t take much for addiction to spiral from sniffing to smoking to injecting to overdose and possible death. One research study showed that teens and young adults who only snorted heroin were likely to start injecting it after a period of time due to building an increasing tolerance for the drug (Broz, 2010). It takes more of the substance, ingested in a more direct way, to get or maintain a high—and that’s where injecting it comes in.

Once addiction has progressed to this point, heroin users will put themselves in extreme, high-risk situations to get the drug, no matter what it takes.  Why? Because they have become physically dependent on the drug and withdrawal from it feels awful. Every day, the entire day, can become devoted to seeking ways to obtain the drug so that they don’t get physically sick.

Drug Addiction Causes Death

So, if you’re a parent, and are worried about your teen’s snorting or smoking heroin, you should be. A thousand percent. You need to take your adolescent son or daughter to a teen drug rehab center immediately. Get them professional addiction treatment before their experimentation spirals into full-blown addiction.

Why such a tone of alarm, you ask?

Heroin use accounts for thousands of young deaths a year. In 2017, opioid overdose caused more than 3,400 deaths of youth ages 15-24 (National Institute of Drug Abuse). A laissez-faire approach to your adolescent’s experimentation can cost them their life.

And if you’re a teen who smokes or snorts heroin, you’re treading in dangerous waters. Ask yourself whether this heroin habit is worth your life. If you’ve tried stopping but realize you can’t, it may be time to consider asking for help. The nature of addiction makes it almost physically impossible to stop using heroin on your own, without some support from a mental health professional. As you develop a physical dependence on the drug, your tolerance increases. You require more and more heroin just to achieve the same high. Then, detox gets worse and worse. It’s a spiral effect. Soon you may be using heroin not even to achieve a high, but because you realize you get sick without it.

Getting Help for Heroin Addiction

For these reasons, you need to get to a teen drug rehabilitation program that can help you detox safely and learn how to achieve recovery from addiction. Depending on the severity of your addiction, you may need a residential treatment center for substance abuse (RTC), partial hospitalization (PHP), or intensive outpatient (IOP). If you also have mental health issues, you may need a treatment center that also specializes in treating dual diagnosis adolescents.

To determine which level of care you need for addiction treatment, find more info here.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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