Overdoses from semi-synthetic opioids like heroin are becoming more common in the United States. In 2017, heroin deaths in Florida occurred in 4.5 out of every 100,000 deaths. This rate has been increasing since 2003.
Made from morphine, heroin is a highly addictive substance that targets the opioid receptors of the brain and relieves pain. A person who uses heroin even once will likely have intense cravings, as their brain drives them to seek the high and euphoria the drug produces. Because tolerance to heroin develops quickly, a person may continue to rapidly increase their dose. This increase can eventually be too much for their body, leading to an overdose.
In the event that someone does overdose on heroin, it is important to know:
- The signs of overdose
- Treatment options that can be used in an overdose emergency
- What to do to give them the best chance at recovery
How Much Heroin Does It Take to Overdose?
In 2017, over 15,000 deaths in the United States were due to drug overdoses that involved heroin. Heroin overdose death statistics may seem alarming, but knowing how overdoses occur can help prevent them in the future.
An Australian study looked at the heroin dosage required for an overdose by comparing the purity and mass of street-level heroin. On average, samples of heroin weighed 92 mg and had a purity of 13%. From this, they calculated that the average effective dose of heroin is 12 mg. Different batches can contain different concentrations of heroin, however, and this can increase the chance of an overdose each time someone uses it.
How Do People Overdose On Heroin?
An overdose is caused by using enough heroin to cause dangerous symptoms that require medical attention. Heroin has many different routes of administration, depending on the purity of the drug being used. Pure heroin in a white powder can be snorted into the nose or smoked. Less pure, black tar heroin can be diluted and injected into veins. Heroin can also be mixed with crack cocaine, which is known as a speedball.
Heroin can also be laced or cut with fentanyl. This drug is a highly dangerous and illegal synthetic opioid, and even small amounts of it can be lethal. Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and it is added to heroin to make the effects stronger. Heroin cut with fentanyl can be sold as “highly potent heroin.” A person can accidentally overdose if they are unaware their heroin is cut with fentanyl.
Heroin Overdose Symptoms
It is important to seek medical help immediately if overdose symptoms occur. The signs of a heroin overdose can include:
- Signs of Heroin Overdose
Slow, shallow or difficulty breathing
Very small pupils
Low blood pressure (hypotension)
Abnormal behaviors such as delirium or disorientation
Uncontrollable muscle movements
Heroin Overdose Treatment
Heroin overdose is extremely dangerous, but there are drugs available to help stop an overdose. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that quickly binds to the same receptors as heroin, working as a heroin overdose antidote. There are two versions of naloxone that can be used to help stop a heroin overdose. The first is Evzio, which injects a dose of naloxone and can temporarily relieve overdose symptoms. The second is Narcan, which is a nasal spray that is sprayed into one nostril. These are easy to use and can be given by bystanders to help prevent heroin overdose deaths.
In addition to treating heroin overdoses, there are medications available to help treat opioid use disorder (OUD). Methadone is used to treat OUD by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone is also used to treat OUD by blocking the effects of heroin that cause addiction (euphoria and sedation)and by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain. Buprenorphine is used to treat OUD and can be prescribed outside of a treatment facility, which has helped increase access to treatment.
If a heroin overdose occurs, there are ways to help prevent the worst from happening. However, heroin addiction treatment is also vital to the recovery process. If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for heroin use, The Recovery Village Palm Beach is here to help. Contact us today to speak with a representative about professional addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2018 Annual Surveillance Report Of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes.” August 31, 2018. Accessed October 27, 2019.
Drug Enforcement Administration. “Fentanyl.” (n.d.). Accessed October 27, 2019.
Florida Health. “2017-2018 Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Annual Report.” December 1, 2018. Accessed October 27, 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Heroin overdose.” July 14, 2017. Accessed October 27, 2019.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What can be done for a heroin overdose?” June 2018. Accessed October 27, 2019.
Stam, Nathan C.; Gerostamoulos, Dimitri; Gestner-Stevens, Joanne; Scott, Nick; et al. “Determining the effective dose of street-level heroin: A new way to consider fluctuations in heroin purity, mass and potential contribution to overdose.” Forensic Science International, September 2018. Accessed October 27, 2019.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Medications To Treat Opioid Addiction.” May 7, 2019. Accessed October 27, 2019.