Heroin is an incredibly powerful opiate that affects every part of the body. When a person takes too much heroin, they can have an overdose. Depending on the amount of medical care available, a heroin overdose can be deadly. Staying informed on heroin overdoses can help you and your loved ones stay safe.
Heroin Overdoses Are Incredibly Common
If you or a loved one has a heroin use disorder, it is important to be informed about overdoses. Any time a person takes heroin, they run the risk of overdosing. According to the CDC, roughly 15,000 people die each year in the U.S. from heroin overdoses. This is an astoundingly high rate that means roughly 5 out of every 100,000 Americans will die from a heroin overdose.
Because overdoses are so common, they are one of the leading causes of premature deaths among heroin users. This is definitely concerning news for anyone with a heroin use disorder. However, the good thing is that most heroin overdoses are preventable. By learning more about how to spot an overdose and what to do, you can reduce the risk of a fatal overdose.
What Happens During a Heroin Overdose?
To understand what happens during a heroin overdose, it is necessary to learn how heroin affects the body. Heroin belongs to a class of drugs called depressants. This means that they slow down the activity of your brain and nervous system. As heroin binds to opioid receptors inside the brain, your body essentially forgets to deal with a lot of major tasks.
This is why a heroin overdose can be so deadly. All the relaxation and euphoria you feel on heroin ends up getting in the way of your brain’s ability to work properly. Tasks that are normally automatic, like breathing, start to get ignored. The main cause of death among people with fatal heroin overdoses is simply a lack of breathing. During an overdose, your breathing usually gets slower and shallower until you are not breathing at all. Without oxygen, the body could die in minutes.
Heroin also affects the circulatory system. The neurotransmitters that cause heroin to feel so relaxing also drastically slow a person’s heart rate. At high levels, heroin can make blood pressure drop significantly. Some people can end up with heart failure because their heart simply is not pumping enough to move blood around in their circulatory system.
How Much Heroin Does It Take to Overdose?
There is no set answer to this question because heroin affects everyone differently. When a person repeatedly uses heroin, their body develops a tolerance for the drug. This means they end up needing to take more and more of the drug to feel the same level of effects. Among regular heroin users, an average daily dose might be around 460 milligrams. However, for those who are new to heroin, an average dose is significantly smaller.
The fact that people can build up a tolerance means that overdose levels vary depending on how often a person takes heroin and how much heroin they usually take. Tolerance can go away after a short break, so a person who gets sober at a heroin treatment program, relapses and takes their usual dose can end up overdosing. Furthermore, things like the purity of heroin can affect overdose levels since most street drugs are not entirely pure. If a person takes a substance that is purer than they usually get, they may overdose.
Signs of a Heroin Overdose
Every heroin overdose is different since a person’s individual health, heroin tolerance and heroin dosage can all affect their condition. However, there are a few key signs to look out for. The first symptom of an overdose is often unresponsiveness. A person who is overdosing may appear to fall asleep even while sitting or standing up. Sometimes, yelling or poking the person may have an effect, but as the overdose progresses, the person will not respond normally. Even if the person is conscious, they will not seem mentally present. They may seem confused, slur their words or be unable to speak.
The other hallmark sign of a heroin overdose is trouble breathing. In most cases, a heroin overdose does not cause a person’s rate of breathing to become uneven or irregular. Instead, a person’s breathing will typically get shallower and shallower. They may appear to breathe slower, or they may gasp repeatedly. If you check a person’s pulse, it will also appear slow. Their heartbeat may be very faint or even undetectable.
Due to the lack of oxygen, a person’s skin may appear very pale. Often, their fingernails or lips may look blue or purple. Keep in mind that this symptom will present differently in those with dark skin. Their fingers and lips may just appear darker instead of seeming blue, and instead of being pale, their skin may look gray. For those with dark skin, the only bluish tint may appear along their gums, around their eyes, inside their lips and along other mucous membranes.
In addition to slowed breathing, slowed heart rate and unresponsiveness, heroin overdoses can cause a whole host of other symptoms. Because a person’s body is going through extreme stress, it may exhibit signs of shock or other various symptoms. Especially if a person was in poor health prior to the overdose, they can show broader symptoms of physical distress. Some possible symptoms include:
- Clammy, damp skin
- Small, contracted pupils
- Choking or gurgling noises
- Convulsions or seizures
Are Heroin Overdoses Different From Other Opioid Overdoses?
When discussing heroin overdoses, it is important to keep in mind that they are closely related to other types of opioid overdoses. In fact, many cases of a heroin user overdosing might not even involve fatal amounts of heroin. This happens because many opiates have almost identical effects. Therefore, it is very easy for a person to purchase what they assume is heroin without realizing that there are other substances mixed in.
In the past five years, the number of heroin users who overdosed has almost doubled. This is due to the rise in fentanyl. Fentanyl is an incredibly potent opiate that is 100 times stronger than morphine. A lethal dosage is just 2 milligrams, so an extremely small amount of fentanyl is deadly. Due to this opioid’s cheap cost, it is often mixed into heroin to “cut” the product. When a person then uses this fentanyl-laced heroin, a minor miscalculation can lead to an overdose.
Opioids like fentanyl might be easier to overdose on than heroin, but they still have the same effects. When a person is overdosing on other opiates, they will often have shallow breathing and pale skin. In many cases, they may be unresponsive or have other signature symptoms of a heroin overdose.
What to Do If You Suspect a Heroin Overdose
If you think you or someone else is having a heroin overdose, it is important to seek care immediately. Opioid overdoses are entirely preventable as long as a person receives treatment in time. The first type of care for an overdose will be administering naloxone. Also called Narcan or Evzio, naloxone is a medication that cancels out the effects of opioids in just a few minutes. It is typically safe to take and will not cause adverse reactions in those who are not actually overdosing.
In many states, naloxone is available as an over-the-counter medication. If the heroin user has naloxone available, it should be administered immediately. Even if you do use naloxone, you should still seek emergency care right away because the naloxone can wear off. In addition, an overdose can be a shock to the system that may require further medical care even after reversal. If naloxone is not present, you should call 911 as soon as possible.
Until the overdosing person can get medical care, it is important to pay close attention to their breathing. As long as they are breathing, you need to roll them on their side into recovery position with their head supported and their mouth facing downward. This can prevent choking during the overdose. If a person seems to no longer have a pulse or the ability to breathe, you may need to try CPR. Providing rescue breathing and chest compressions can keep their system going until help arrives.
How to Prevent Heroin Overdoses
Due to the frequency and severity of heroin overdoses, there has been a lot of research into preventing heroin overdoses. Following these recommendations may help keep you safe until you are able to get clean. First of all, get a naloxone prescription if possible, and always keep it on hand in case of overdose. It is also a good idea to follow these tips any time a drug is used:
- Never mix heroin with any substances, including alcohol.
- Measure doses carefully and write down how much you take if you are prone to forgetting.
- Take very small doses if you begin using heroin again after even a day or two of abstinence.
- Use a drug test kit to test your heroin for the presence of fentanyl.
- Try to have a friend present who can help you if you overdose.
- Be honest with your doctor about heroin use and ask if you have any health factors that increase your risk of overdose.
Of course, none of these methods are truly going to guarantee that you never overdose. The only way to absolutely prevent a heroin overdose is to stop using heroin. Getting clean from opioids can seem overwhelming, so it is important to ask for help. With assistance from a supportive opioid recovery program, you can learn how to fight addiction and work toward sobriety.
Get Help With Heroin Addiction Treatment
Granite Recovery Centers can give you the tools you need to manage an opioid use disorder. With our medical detox program, we can help you manage all the unpleasant symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal. Depending on your situation, you can join our inpatient or outpatient rehab program. The residential program gives you a chance to live at our peaceful New England facility while you focus on sobriety. With our intensive outpatient program, you still get constant care but are able to live at home and manage your usual responsibilities.
At Granite Recovery Centers, we have a broad range of treatment options. Our specialists will consult with you and help you find the right choices for your needs. We have 12-step programs where you can get support from other individuals in recovery, and we offer therapy sessions where you can get treatment from a licensed counselor. Granite Recovery Centers even offers holistic options like exercise therapy that help you with healing and rebuilding your life. Get started on your journey to sobriety by contacting us today.