Overdoses are an unfortunate reality and are often the byproduct of recreationally using semi-synthetic opiates such as heroin. Derived from morphine, heroin is an addictive, affordable, and highly accessible depressant compound. Beyond the desire to take one’s own life, overdosing is usually an accidental or unintentional consequence of such drug use.
Still, considering the relatively small amount that it takes to overdose, mixed with a high likelihood of the drug being laced with other substances for an inconsistent purity from batch to batch, it’s easy to see why heroin is one of the most dangerous drugs in the world. Put bluntly, each and every time a drug user injects, snorts, or smokes heroin they risk the chance of a lethal overdose. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heroin overdose is key to seeking prompt and effective treatment.
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Heroin Overdose Symptoms
When the human body consumes too much heroin, breathing and heartbeat can both stop. This can occur as fast as 10 minutes after consumption. True to the nature of depressants, heroin brings body functions to a slow crawl, and in so doing, increases the likelihood of permanent cessation of systems altogether.
Those that have had a heroin overdose point to having felt myriad symptoms ranging in intensity:
- Dry mouth
- Spasms in their abdominal region
- Intense drowsiness or disorientation
- Difficulty breathing
As symptoms are self-diagnosable, if you have ingested heroin and experience any abnormal or uncomfortable sensations, do not hesitate to seek out medical assistance right away.
Drug overdose can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
Is Heroin Overdose Painful?
Those that have survived a heroin overdose have mixed answers when asked whether their experience was painful. The responses always differ from person to person and overdose to overdose.
Pain is certainly one of many possible symptoms associated with a heroin overdose, and pain is associated with the drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, naloxone. Naloxone competes for the same binding sites as other opioids but is more competitive. By knocking these drugs out of place, naloxone prevents them from having an effect. This can create a jarring and painfully fast withdrawal.
But the overdose is sometimes reported as the exact opposite: enjoyable. Some survivors describe the hit they took right before overdosing as no different than the typical sensation they’ve felt, or they felt nothing at all. Others, however, claim that it is the most intense and pleasurable high they’ve ever experienced. Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs for a reason: it is potent and the high is one of the most euphoric possible.
What must be remembered is that while the euphoria is powerful, it is still only fleeting. The consequences of taking the gamble are not, however. Whether it is painful or enjoyable at the moment, one thing is undeniable: the experience of overdose is painful to watch for the outside observer. And is quite traumatic for those having to deal with or attempt a resuscitation.
Heroin Overdose Death
Deaths resulting from heroin overdose are all too common. From cherished celebrities, neighbors, classmates, and family members, this is a scourge felt across the globe.
Much of heroin’s inherent danger lies in how quickly users build tolerance and dependence. Additionally, the drug reinforces drug-seeking behavior after just one use. With every subsequent ingestion, the body requires more heroin to achieve similar or stronger highs. Chasing this next, best high increases the probability of overdosing exponentially. Once this limit is reached and overdose sets in, respiratory or cardiac depression are two of the leading causes of death attributed to this unrelenting substance.
It is not cut and dry as to how much heroin it takes to kill. Numerous factors have to be taken into consideration, including health and wellness, weight, the frequency of use, purity of each batch, foreign additives, and simply a general amount of unpredictability that comes anytime when using is involved.
Heroin overdose deaths have jumped more than 400 percent since 2002, with fatalities well over 42,000 in 2016 alone. With heroin usage steadily rising year over year, these numbers do not look to be slowing down anytime soon.
Signs of Heroin Overdose
There are numerous signs that someone may be experiencing a heroin overdose. The most common signs witnesses are likely to recognize are shallow or the complete absence of breathing. Other signs may include:
- Tongue discoloration
- Choking or gurgling sounds
- Constricted pupils
- Faint or weak pulse
- Blue or purplish skin, nails or lips
- Uncontrollable muscle movements
- Delirious and unresponsive even while awake
Additionally, overdose victims may lose consciousness or fall into a coma-like state. This is a particularly distressing sign that should never be ignored.
Heroin Overdose Treatment
Heroin overdoses are treated the same way as all opioid drugs, with the anti-overdose drug known as naloxone. Also known by the common brand name, Narcan, this emergency overdose opioid antagonist prevents heroin from functioning in the nervous system. With naloxone, overdose victims are more likely to survive long enough to reach emergency centers where medical professionals can assist them further.
Now more than ever, access to this life-saving medicine is becoming more widespread. First responders and police officers in cities with high heroin overdose rates are often armed with naloxone at all times. Still, while certainly beneficial at the moment, naloxone is not a cure-all. The reversal properties are not always successful, and even when they are, users are faced with crippling after-effects to their health months and years on.
The grip of heroin addiction can feel all-consuming, but hope is on the horizon. If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder involving heroin, alcohol, or any other drug, The Recovery Village can help. With locations across the United States and centers staffed with compassionate professionals, we work to empower clients to overcome addiction with evidence-based care and support. Our intake coordinators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer any of your questions. Call today to get started.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Overdose Death Rates.” Last updated August 2018. Accessed January 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.