The United State’s opioid epidemic involving prescription pain medicines and illegal drugs has led to huge spikes in the number of overdoses. One of the key reasons you can overdose and die from opiates is because of respiratory depression. Of all the very serious potential consequences of opioid addiction, respiratory depression is one of the most troublesome.

What Is Respiratory Depression?

Before looking at the specifics of how opiates cause respiratory depression, we’ll look at what respiratory depression is.

Respiratory depression refers to the feeling of having a reduced urge to breathe. It can create a pattern like sighing when breathing, which is defined as deep breaths with long pauses between them. Sedation occurs along with respiratory depression resulting from opiate use.

When opiates are taken in high doses, or drugs are mixed with each other, the result of respiratory depression can be deadly. The risk of respiratory depression increases with the increased consumption of opiates.

Then there is respiratory failure. This is when a person starts to lose consciousness, go into a coma or stop breathing. When this happens, a person will start to turn blue and, in many cases, this is why people die from opioid overdoses.

What happens when opiates cause respiratory depression is that people are also so sedated that they can’t wake themselves up from being deprived of oxygen. This can commonly happen when people take too many opioids, but also when they pair them with alcohol or sleeping pills. Another risk of opioids in terms of respiratory depression happens when someone takes them and has undiagnosed sleep apnea.

So what explains how opiates cause respiratory depression?

Looking at How Opiates Cause Respiratory Depression

How opiates cause respiratory depression can be understood by considering the fact that these drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Our CNS is responsible for controlling our breathing and also managing our heartbeat.

The concept of how opiates cause respiratory depression is complex, but in theory, it’s simple. When you take opiates, it slows your CNS, which in turns slows breathing. The more opiates you take, the more your breathing can slow.

One of the first signs of an opiate overdose is someone who has a breathing rate of fewer than 12 breaths a minute. Other symptoms that are often paired with marked respiratory depression during an opioid overdose include pinpoint pupils, seeming confused, having problems staying awake, odd mood changes, slow movements, nausea and uncontrollable vomiting.

If someone seems to have overdosed on opioids and is experiencing visible respiratory depression, they will likely need an opioid antagonist like naloxone. This is a drug designed to reverse respiratory depression, although this doesn’t always work — particularly if the overdose included a combination of other depressants.

Respiratory depression is one of the severe side effects of using opiates and understanding how opiates cause respiratory depression can be an important part of preventing overdose deaths.

a man with a beard wearing glasses and a hoodie.
Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
a male in a white lab coat and tie.
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more
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.