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Heroin vs. Meth: Understanding the Differences

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Drug addiction is a serious public health problem that affects nearly 24 million Americans from all backgrounds.[1] Among some of the most addictive drugs are heroin and methamphetamine (also known as meth or crystal meth), both of which can be addictive after just a few uses and are extremely dangerous. While both drugs can be dangerous and lead to addiction, they differ in several ways.

If you suspect someone you love is struggling with addiction, being able to identify what drugs they are using can help you determine the best approach to getting them the treatment they need.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is a powerful opioid drug that is derived from morphine, an opioid that is found in the seed pod of the opium poppy plant. Its effects are similar to morphine but more powerful. Heroin was first created by an English Chemist named C.R. Wright in 1874 as he was attempting to turn morphine into a non-addictive alternative to pain management. However, researchers quickly found out that heroin was addictive, so it was deemed illegal and has no medicinal use today.[2]

Heroin is usually sold on the streets as a white, off-white, or brown powder that can be snorted, smoked, or injected, but it can also be found as a sticky black substance known as black tar heroin.

When heroin is injected, the drug enters the bloodstream and travels quickly to the brain, creating an intense and immediate high. However, heroin’s euphoria wears off quickly, and users can quickly become addicted to the drug, leading to a challenging cycle of physical dependence and withdrawal.

Heroin abuse can lead to a range of troublesome health problems, including respiratory depression, collapsed veins, infections, and an increased risk of HIV/AIDS. Long-term heroin abuse can also lead to liver and kidney damage, as well as an increased risk of overdose and death.

Side Effects of Heroin

Heroin is an opioid and has effects comparable to other opioids, just more potent. The immediate effects of heroin use can include:[3]

  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Constricted (pinpoint) pupils
  • Itchy skin
  • Flushed appearance
  • Nodding out (going back and forth between semiconsciousness and full consciousness–can look like falling asleep)

What is Methamphetamine (Meth)?

Methamphetamine, commonly known as meth, ice, or crystal meth, is a synthetic stimulant drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine. It is sold illicitly as a white or translucent, odorless, bitter-tasting powder that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or injected. Meth is made from a combination of chemicals, including pseudoephedrine, a common cold medication.

Methamphetamine was first synthesized by a Japanese chemist in 1893 and the drug was used to treat narcolepsy, asthma, and obesity. It was also used during World War II by both Allies and Axis powers to keep the troops awake and ready for battle.[3] But like heroin, meth abuse and addiction spread like wildfire, and people soon recognized the addictive properties of the drug.

While many forms of prescription methamphetamine were outlawed, it is available via a brand name Desoxyn. Desoxyn is approved by the FDA to treat obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but has very limited use due to other medications that are available today.[4]

Like heroin, meth is highly addictive and can lead to a range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and psychosis. Meth use can also cause severe dental problems, known as “meth mouth,” and skin lesions. Long-term use of meth can lead to cognitive impairment and memory loss.

Side Effects of Meth

Meth is a stimulant, and the effects it produces are nearly the opposite of that of heroin. Immediate side effects of meth include:[6]

  • Euphoria
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Decreased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased energy, focus, and concentration
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

Comparing The Effects of Heroin vs. Meth

While heroin and meth are both highly addictive drugs, they have different effects on the body and brain. Heroin is a central nervous system depressant (CNS) that acts on the brain’s reward system, flooding the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and reward. The high that heroin produces is intense and immediate, but it also wears off quickly.

Meth, on the other hand, acts on the brain’s central nervous system as a stimulant, increasing the levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. This leads to intense feelings of euphoria, increased energy, heightened alertness, and a sense of well-being. Meth can also increase heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. The effects meth produces are longer lasting than those of heroin, and some people may binge on meth to stay awake for several days at a time. Meth binges often result in paranoia, anxiety, and fear. When the effects of meth wear off, users may experience a “crash” period followed by withdrawal.

Similarities Between Heroin and Meth

While methamphetamine (meth) and heroin are different drugs with different effects on the body, there are some similarities between the two, including:

  • Addiction develops rapidly – Both meth and heroin are highly addictive drugs that can lead to physical and psychological dependence after just a few doses.
  • Potential for health risks – Both drugs can cause serious and life-threatening long-term health problems, including cardiovascular problems, liver and kidney damage, and overdose.
  • Behavioral changes – Both heroin and meth can cause concerning changes in behavior, including aggression, agitation, sleep changes, appetite changes, mood swings, and irritability.
  • The necessity for treatment – Both drugs require professional treatment for addiction, and therapy, counseling, and support groups are key aspects of meth and heroin rehab.

Some people may mix heroin and meth–an act called “speedballing.” Heroin may take the edge off meth, reducing symptoms of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, and meth can reduce the drowsiness and fatigue associated with heroin. However, mixing the two drugs is extremely dangerous and can lead to sudden heart failure, overdose, and death.

Find Help for Meth or Heroin Addiction Today

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to heroin or meth, know that treatment is available. At South Carolina Addiction Treatment, we offer detox and residential treatment programs that can help you get your life back on track. Call now to learn more.