Recognizing and Treating a Heroin Overdose
The number of deaths related to heroin overdoses increased 600% from 2001 to 2014 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Knowing the signs of a heroin overdose and where to get help can help prevent serious consequences.
This article looks at:
- The signs of a heroin overdose.
- Treatments available for an overdose.
- Medications used to treat an overdose.
- Length of treatment and cost.
Signs of Heroin Overdose
If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, call a treatment support specialist today at 1-888-319-2606
Heroin addiction follows a typical pattern. Someone may initially experiment with small amounts of the substance by snorting, smoking or injecting it.
Before long, tolerance to heroin develops, which means that the user must consume larger amounts, higher purities or change the frequency and method of delivery into the body to increase the effect. Heroin overdose is a substantial concern anytime the drug is used but increases with higher levels of use.
Overdose Signs and Symptoms
- Very slow and labored breathing.
- Inability to gain consciousness.
- Very slow and weak heart rate.
- Feeling cold and clammy.
What to Do
If someone overdoses on heroin, seek immediate medical treatment by calling 911.
Avoid inducing vomiting unless explicitly told to do so by a professional. The condition can be deadly without treatment.
Heroin Overdose Treatment
Once in the care of medical professionals, the person with overdose symptoms may be given a medication called naloxone. This is an opioid receptor antagonist, which means the substance quickly attaches to the same areas of the brain that heroin seeks out. When administered quickly after use, naloxone can reduce and reverse all symptoms of overdose. Following an overdose, the user will require a period of hospitalization for observation since a range of physical and mental issues can present, including damage to major organs. Following this, the medical staff may recommend a period of supervised detoxification where the heroin is allowed to be removed from the body.
During detox, a range of medications may be administered to increase comfort, safety and odds of sustained recovery. Sedative medications might be used to reduce the heroin withdrawal symptoms, which include:
- Bones and muscle pain.
- Involuntary kicking movements.
- Nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
- Feeling cold.
- Cravings more of the substance.
In other situations, the treatment team may recommend a medication-assisted treatment to avoid withdrawals and promote recovery. Medications might include:
- Methadone. This opioid agonist activates opioid receptors like heroin does, but in a slower, more sustained manner that results in a more consistent feeling.
- Buprenorphine. Available as Suboxone (combined with naloxone) and Subutex, this partial opioid agonist prevents withdrawal symptoms without yielding the high associated with heroin and other agonists.
- Naltrexone. Use of this opioid antagonist will block other opioids from producing any results in the body, making any drug use or abuse ineffective.
Once you complete detox, an inpatient or outpatient heroin rehab program is recommended for making a full recovery from heroin addiction.
Length of Time and Cost
The time and cost of a heroin detox program or a heroin recovery program will vary widely by location and the clientele. Best results are attained after a rehabilitation period lasting at least 90 days, but lasting recovery is an ongoing process.
Your insurance may cover all or a portion of the cost of treatment. If you don’t have insurance, you can finance your recovery through a payment plan with the facility or see if the program has a sliding scale for fees.
- If you have insurance. Call 1-888-319-2606 Who Answers? to check the level of coverage offered by your carrier.
- If you don’t have insurance. Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) national helpline to get referrals to treatment centers in your community that help people without insurance.
Regardless of whether you choose an inpatient or outpatient recovery program, counseling will be at the center of your recovery. The two therapy types that have shown the best outcomes when treating heroin dependence are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management (CM).
- Cognitive behavioral therapy helps you identify the thoughts, feelings, behaviors and beliefs that contributed to your heroin use and ways to avoid future use.
- Contingency management works by providing tangible, desirable rewards for completing actions associated with a drug-free lifestyle. This trains you to associate sobriety with rewards.
Make sure you have an aftercare plan in place when you leave treatment.
Effective treatment will begin to address the causes of your drug use and help you stop using. By investigating past issues, future triggers can be identified. This information can be used to create a relapse prevention plan that will detail triggers to avoid and actions you can take whenever you have cravings for heroin. Once you leave treatment, it’s important to have some kind of aftercare plan in place. Support groups such as 12-step meetings and positive relationships with sober friends and family can help boost long-term success. You can also consider a sober living environment or see a therapist on an ongoing basis.
It’s Not Too Late
Heroin is a powerful force in the lives of those impacted by it. There is hope, though. Treatment performed by licensed and credentialed providers can work to provide prolonged periods of recovery from the substance. Seeking treatment is a great step to take.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Research Report Series: Heroin. (n.d.).
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Heroin. (n.d.).
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). History of Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction. Treatment Improvement Protocol Series, No. 43. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville, MD.