Heroin Overdose

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The number of deaths related to heroin overdoses increased 600% from 2001 to 2014 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.3 Knowing the signs of a heroin overdose and where to get help can help prevent serious consequences.

This article will help you understand:


What is a Heroin Overdose?

Heroin overdose can occur when a person takes a large enough dose of heroin to cause potentially life-threatening consequences or even death.2

When a person experiences a heroin overdose, their breathing slows dramatically and may even stop.2 When this occurs, there is a decreased level of oxygen reaching the brain, also known as hypoxia.2 If a person experiences hypoxia, it can lead to various short- and long-term effects. These can include mental health effects, nervous system effects, coma, or brain damage.2

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Overdose

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Heroin use has increased across the country among both men and women, and it more than doubled among young adults ages 18-25 between 2005 and 2015.5 With this increase in use has come an increase in heroin overdoses and heroin-related deaths.

Heroin addiction often follows a pattern where a person initially experiments 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 more heroin or more frequent doses to feel the same effects they did when they first began using.2 Heroin overdose is a substantial concern anytime the drug is used but increases with higher levels of use.

Heroin overdose signs and symptoms can include:6

  • Very slow and labored breathing.
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue.
  • Shaking.
  • Feeling cold and clammy.
  • Vomiting.

If someone overdoses on heroin, seek immediate medical treatment by calling 911. Avoid inducing vomiting unless explicitly told to do so by a professional. Heroine overdose can be deadly without treatment.


Heroin Overdose Treatment

If a person is experiencing a heroin overdose, it’s important to seek medical care immediately. If you or a loved one have experienced an overdose before, it may be a strong indicator that treatment is necessary.

Heroin overdose treatment may include a medication called naloxone, which is an opioid receptor antagonist that 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.2

Following an overdose, the user will require a period of hospitalization for observation and supervised detoxification since a range of physical and mental effects can occur as heroin leaves the body.

During detox, a range of medications may be administered to increase comfort, safety, and help set a good foundation for recovery. Sedative medications might be used to reduce the heroin withdrawal symptoms, which can include:2

  • Agitation.
  • Bones and muscle pain.
  • Involuntary kicking movements.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Feeling cold.
  • Cravings more of the substance.

In other situations, the treatment team may recommend a medication to help 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 and helps to reduce use and cravings.
  • 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.


Information About Heroin Recovery Programs

The time and cost of a heroin detox program or a heroin recovery program can vary depending on a number of factors like location, type of program, treatment services, and amenities.

Your insurance may cover all or a portion of the cost of treatment. You can check your insurance coverage by contacting your provider or the recovery facility.

If you don’t have insurance, check with the facility to see if they offer payment plans, scholarships, grants, or other financing options. You can also 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.

Counseling

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 may be effective in treating heroin addiction 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.

Aftercare

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.


If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, there is hope. Treatment can be effective at helping build a strong foundation for recovery and a life of sobriety. The caring admissions navigators at American Addiction Centers are ready to help you find the right treatment. Call 1-888-319-2606 Helpline Information to learn about treatment options and check your insurance coverage to start your recovery journey.

Sources

1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Research Report Series: Heroin.

2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Heroin DrugFacts.

3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Overdose Death Rates.

4. 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.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Today’s Heroin Epidemic.

6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Heroin.

7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Medications for Opioid Overdose, Withdrawal, & Addiction.

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