Heroin addiction leads to many health-related, personal and professional issues, not the least of which is the possibility of a heroin overdose. Drug addiction has become something of an epidemic in the United States, and opioid-based heroin is essentially feeding this epidemic through its addictive properties. But heroin is not only addictive and detrimental to personal health – it is dangerous, and can lead to life-threatening situations.
Heroin is considered one of the most addictive illicit drugs on the market. The drug comes from morphine, a form of opioid, and is taken either as a powder or a tar-like substance. Either snorting or injecting the drug leads to a high that quickly comes and goes. Because experiencing that high requires increasingly larger doses of the drug, addicts tend to go to greater lengths to obtain the drug and end up taking more dangerous levels of the drug to get high.
Because of this, heroin overdose represents a very dangerous aspect of drug addiction as a whole and accounts for a disproportionate amount of drug overdose. As the stats about heroin overdose presented below make clear, the issue has only gotten worse over the last several years.
“The dark color associated with black tar heroin results from crude processing methods that leave behind impurities. Impure heroin is usually dissolved, diluted, and injected into veins, muscles, or under the skin. Overdose is a dangerous and deadly consequence of heroin use. A large dose of heroin depresses heart rate and breathing to such an extent that a user cannot survive without medical help.”
~ The National Institute on Drug Abuse
Even if this is not an exhaustive account of the medical details regarding heroin addiction and overdose, you will find the answers to the following questions:
- How common is heroin overdose?
- What are the symptoms of heroin overdose?
- How can heroin overdose be avoided?
How Common is Heroin Overdose?
The short answer: heroin overdose is more common than you would think. If you were to listen to your local drug dealer or your friends, you would hear that heroin overdose is an uncommon occurrence, and that heroin itself is addictive but not dangerous. Nothing could be further than the truth, as the stats about heroin overdose show. In fact, heroin overdose accounted for nearly 13,000 deaths in 2015 – that’s more than 1,000 each and every month. The American Society of Addiction Medicine provides a list of facts and figures that highlight the national heroin overdose epidemic:
- Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US
- An estimated 23% of people who use heroin develop an addiction to the opioid drug
- The United States saw over 55,000 lethal drug overdoses in 2015
- 12,990 overdose deaths were related to heroin the same year
- The overdose death rate in 2008 was almost four times the rate from ten years earlier
- Using heroin with other drugs or alcohol increases the possibility of overdose
- Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers
- “94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were far more expensive and harder to obtain”
All of these facts and stats about heroin overdose combine to paint a very stark picture: heroin overdose is not only possible but also a highly probable situation. Just consider the fact that nearly a quarter of people who use heroin get addicted to opioids. Because addiction both increases your drive for consuming the drug and decreases the way your brain responds to it, it is no surprise that more than half a million Americans have a substance use disorder with heroin. Not only that, but the decreasing effects of the drug means that an overdose becomes more likely with sustained use. Heroin overdose is seen when addicts take increasingly larger doses of the drug to try to get their original high, eventually overloading their systems altogether.
The number of deaths from heroin overdose have increased by more than six times in less than fifteen years, from two thousand overdose deaths in 2002 to nearly thirteen thousand overdose deaths in 2015. Heroin overdose is clearly not an uncommon occurrence. To put it in more specific terms, roughly 1 in every 50 addicts died from a heroin overdose in 2015.
This number has only been rising over the past few years, and is likely to continue to rise unless something changes. The stats about heroin overdose make one thing clear: it is important that you do not minimize the detrimental health impact that sustained heroin abuse can have on your system, and do not ignore the very real possibility that you can die from a heroin overdose. Instead, take the time to learn what the symptoms of heroin overdose are and how overdose can be avoided through treatment and support.
What are the Symptoms of Heroin Overdose?
While the stats about heroin overdose are helpful for gaining a full picture of the epidemic, they do not show what heroin overdose actually looks like. Heroin is not only one of the most addictive drugs in the world, but also considered one of the most dangerous illicit substances because of the way it is taken and the likelihood that it has been mixed with other poisonous substances. Because of these dangers, heroin overdose can be deadly if medical attention is not received immediately.
This cannot be considered medical advice and should not be used in place of emergency medical services in the face of a heroin overdose. However, some of the more commonly recognized signs and symptoms of a heroin overdose include:
- Slowed or shallow breathing
- Difficulty breathing
- Dry mouth or discolored tongue
- Pinpointed pupils (extremely small)
- Low blood pressure or a weak pulse
- Bluish lips or nails
- Constipation and/or spasms in the stomach or intestines
- Disorientation or delirium
- Excessive and sustained drowsiness
- Repeatedly losing consciousness
If you see at least several of these symptoms in yourself or in someone you that you know that has been using opioids, it is time to call emergency services. When you call an ambulance, be sure you have important information on hand, such as the person’s age and weight, how much heroin they took, how long ago they took it, and what their condition appears to be at the time of the call. Recognizing a heroin overdose and calling for help can be lifesaving in many circumstances. Too many overdose deaths occur because those around the victim were either unable or unwilling to call for the help that is needed.
Even if heroin overdose does not lead to death, it has an extremely detrimental impact on the physical body, from organs to life systems like your intestines. Overdose on the drug – or even sustained abuse of the drug without overdose symptoms – can lead to the same kind of brain damage seen in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This is particularly true for those who continue to abuse the drug after an overdose or use multiple substances at once.
“It’s not well-known that heroin abuse damages the brains of users. Brain damage results from non-fatal overdoses and head injuries that are more likely to occur in an impaired person (especially polydrug abusers). Remnants of injuries that trace back to a lack of oxygen to the brain, either from these overdoses or injuries, are commonly found in long-term heroin addicts. When a person becomes comatose after a non-fatal overdose of heroin, the muscles that experienced the unmoving weight of the body may begin to break down. The chemicals released by this breakdown are destructive to the kidneys. Recovery usually requires dialysis and may require a kidney transplant.”
Heroin is not a drug you want to mess with, given the long- and short-term impact it can have on your brain and body. But even knowing these damaging effects at a cognitive level does not always make it easier for an addict to give up the drug. So what can be done to overcome addiction and avoid heroin overdose altogether?
How Can Heroin Overdose by Avoided?
Just as with the law, prevention is nine tenths of recovery and rehabilitation. Addiction to heroin – even in those cases where heroin overdose has already occurred – is no exception. The best three ways to avoid overdosing on the drug are primarily about preventing a dangerous situation where overdose becomes not only more possible, but also more likely. The three main steps toward preventing heroin overdose are:
- Do not, under any circumstances, use heroin with other illicit substances (particularly cocaine, alcohol and other opioids)
- If you (or someone you know) is using heroin despite its associated dangers, consider keeping naloxone close by, a medication that decreases the effects of opioids on the body
- Perhaps most crucially, seek out treatment for your heroin addiction as soon as possible, before it leads to overdose
Getting medical treatment is crucial for ensuring that an overdose on heroin does not lead to death. In fact, if an antidote like nalaxone is administered, recovering from a heroin overdose can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. However, it is sometimes necessary to be admitted to a hospital since heroin overdose can often be damaging to other organs and bodily functions.
For the last point, treatment is the best approach to avoiding heroin overdose completely. While there may not be a cure for heroin addiction (let alone addiction as a whole), there are treatments that help individuals overcome their addiction. This is the best way to avoid heroin overdose altogether, since not taking heroin at all is the only way to be sure you are completely safe against the possibility of an overdose.
“The path to drug addiction begins with the voluntary act of taking drugs. But over time, a person’s ability to choose not to do so becomes compromised. Seeking and taking the drug becomes compulsive. This is mostly due to the effects of long-term drug exposure on brain function. Addiction affects parts of the brain involved in reward and motivation, learning and memory, and control over behavior. Addiction is a chronic disease that affects both the brain and behavior.”
Because addiction is a chronic mental disorder, treatment is focused on the mental processes behind the addiction. Treatment includes both medication and behavioral therapies. The most popular medication treatment for heroin addiction is methadone, which is actually an opioid itself. However, the medication is designed to reach the brain slowly so that it reduces withdrawal symptoms without giving a high to the one that takes it.
Medication treatment is focused on managing withdrawal symptoms (primarily during detox), while behavioral therapies are focused on managing the underlying reasons for and continuation of the addiction. For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy helps addicts recognize the detrimental impact of their addiction and develop tools for coping with cravings. Regardless of the treatment approach, effective treatment includes the following principles:
- Treatment focuses on addiction as a treatable mental disorder
- Treatment can be adapted to individual client needs
- Treatment can include both medication and behavioral therapies
- Treatment is a necessary second step after detoxification
- Treatment addresses all client needs, rather than just addiction
All in all, getting treatment for heroin addiction is the best way to avoid heroin overdose. Any kind of use of heroin is inherently dangerous, and the use of the drug should be discontinued as soon as possible. Because heroin overdose is a highly probable situation, it is important to start taking the first steps toward recovery and seeking out the support and treatment that you need before it is too late.
If you have any questions regarding the symptoms or impact of a heroin overdose, or even a story you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment below.