Heroin Overdose Symptoms & Treatment

A heroin overdose is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical attention.1 On this page, you’ll learn about heroin overdose signs and symptoms, what to do when someone is experiencing a heroin overdose, and how to get treatment for heroin addiction.

Heroin Overdose Symptoms

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heroin overdose and intervening immediately is crucial.2 Heroin overdose signs include:3

  • Slow or no breathing.
  • Pale or clammy skin.
  • Vomiting.
  • Arms and legs going limp.
  • Bluish lips or fingernails.
  • Disorientation.
  • Unconsciousness.

What to Do During a Heroin Overdose

If a person is suspected of overdosing on heroin or any opioid, immediately call 9-1-1 and summon emergency medical personnel.1 If you have naloxone, administer it as soon as possible.2,3 

If you must run to call for help or get naloxone and it will mean leaving the person alone, put them in the rescue position with their top arm and leg positioned across the body to keep them from choking in case they vomit.1

Recovery Position

Rescue position

After you’ve administered a dose of naloxone, stay with the person and try to keep them awake and breathing.2

If after 3-5 minutes, they are still not breathing, administer a 2nd dose of naloxone until medical help arrives.

When the person resumes breathing, put them in the rescue position.1

Stay with the person until emergency responders arrive.2

Naloxone for Heroin Overdose

The fatal effects of a heroin overdose result from the opioid interrupting the body’s ability to regulate breathing.4 The effects can be reversed by administering the drug naloxone.3 Naloxone will have virtually no effect on someone who has not taken opioids.3

WATCH: How to Reverse an Opioid Overdose Using Narcan

What Causes a Heroin Overdose?

Heroin is highly addictive illegal opioid drug.7 As a potent opioid, heroin attaches to opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system, delivering a euphoric, pleasurable “rush.” Heroin blocks pain receptors in the body and also depresses breathing and heart rate.8

Taking large doses of heroin can slow or stop the body’s breathing. When this happens, the brain soon becomes deprived of oxygen in which can lead to coma, brain damage, or death.7

Several factors may increase a person’s risk of experiencing a heroin overdose:

  • Combining heroin with CNS depressants: More than 9 in 10 people who use heroin also use at least one other drug.9 People often use heroin along with alcohol, benzodiazepines and other drugs that depress the central nervous system. These substances all have an additive effect on sedation and respiratory depression.9 Around 30% of overdoses involving opioids such as heroin also involved benzodiazepines.10
  • Relapse following a period of sobriety: Individuals build up a tolerance to heroin and other opioids following regular use of the drug. Tolerance occurs when a person needs higher or more frequent doses of a drug to achieve the same effects.11,12 People who have stopped regular use of heroin risk overdose when they relapse and use as much of the drug as they did before they stopped using. Their bodies are no longer adapted to handle as much heroin as they used to use.12
  • Heroin laced with fentanyl or another synthetic opioid: Heroin is often “laced” or “cut” with other substances. Individuals who use heroin or obtain opioids illegally are often unaware of exactly what they are taking and the potency. Fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids are increasingly being mixed with heroin according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.13 These synthetic opioids are 80-100 times more potent than heroin and are involved in more deaths than any other illicit drug, raising the risk for heroin users who think they are using a pure or unadulterated drug.4,14

Heroin Addiction Treatment in Texas

A drug overdose is a wakeup call, as it is often an indication of addiction and a sign that treatment is required.

Many emergency department clinicians will now discuss heroin addiction treatment options with patients who have overdosed on heroin, and some will even put them on the path to sobriety by initiating medications for opioid use disorder.16

At Greenhouse Treatment Center—a drug and alcohol rehab near Dallas—a team of experienced and licensed medical professionals help patients undergo treatment specific to their individual needs.

If you or someone you love are struggling with the heroin use, there is hope. Together we can help you reach long-term sobriety one step at a time.

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