Are heroin overdoses painful? You may be asking yourself this question if a loved one is dealing with an addiction to opioids. You may also wonder about what an overdose is like if you use heroin yourself. Naturally, no one wants to think about someone they care about going through a painful and possibly deadly experience. Yet, many people are exposed to the risk of having a heroin overdose every day.
Heroin use has been on the rise in recent years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 494,000 people over the age of 12 reported using heroin in 2017. The use of heroin has also increased among people in demographics that used to be considered at a lower risk, such as women and people who fall within higher income brackets. Essentially, the growing epidemic of opioid use is something that could impact any household in the United States
For families of someone with an addiction to heroin, the possibility of an overdose is never far from their minds. You may also deal with the constant fear of not being able to save someone’s life if they have an overdose while you are there with them. Sadly, a person is at risk of overdosing every time they use heroin due to the inability to know for sure what a street drug may do to the body.
The simple answer to the question about whether heroin overdoses are painful is probably “no” due to the way that heroin affects pain receptors in the brain. However, there is much more than you need to know about overdoses than just how painful they are to the person going through them. Overdoses can be deadly, which means that you need to be able to recognize when one is happening so that you can immediately get the person help.
How Do People Use Heroin?
Heroin use is often associated with injections. However, someone that you know could also be using heroin through other methods that do not leave track marks on their skin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin is primarily sold in two different forms that may resemble a brown or white powder or a black, tarry substance.
Depending on the type of heroin that a person has, they may snort it, smoke it or turn it into an injectable liquid. Keep in mind that heroin can sometimes look similar to other types of drugs, but you should always tell emergency responders if you believe that someone used heroin before they began to show signs of an overdose.
What Effect Does Heroin Have on the Body?
When you are wondering if heroin overdoses are painful, understanding how the drug works in the body can help you understand why they are usually painless. Heroin binds to special opioid receptors in the brain. These are the same types of receptors that prescription painkillers bind to, making a person’s brain no longer respond to painful stimuli with the usual levels of discomfort.
Heroin also stimulates a rush of dopamine through a person’s body. Dopamine is an endorphin that generates a feeling of euphoria. Due to these physiological reactions, someone who is having an overdose will likely be unable to feel pain. In fact, they may briefly feel an intense sense of euphoria shortly before their body becomes unable to deal with the drug in their system.
How Does an Overdose Happen?
Having the answer to your concerns about are heroin overdoses painful is reassuring if you have lost someone to their use of the drug. Yet, it is also important to understand how an overdose happens so that you can help anyone who is currently struggling with an addiction.
At the same time that heroin is attaching to the opioid receptors in the brain, it also affects the central nervous system and respiratory system. While a person is under the influence of the drug, their breathing tends to slow down. In some cases, it can slow down to the point that their body simply stops breathing.
A similar situation also occurs with the heart. Heroin can cause arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. When the heart beats irregularly, the brain does not receive enough blood flow to keep it active. A lack of blood flow can also impact other organs that help keep a person alive, and severe arrhythmias can place so much stress on the heart that it stops beating completely. When a person overdoses, they are at risk of respiratory or cardiac arrest that could lead to death.
Can Other Opioids Lead to an Overdose?
One of the reasons why heroin use is on the rise is linked to the addictive nature of other opioids. Opioid-based prescription painkillers, such as codeine, have addictive qualities that can cause a person to experience physical and psychological withdrawals if they try to stop using them without the appropriate professional help.
Once a physician stops prescribing these drugs to a patient, that person may turn to heroin as a way to address their dependency on opioids. Heroin tends to be a cheaper and easier alternative to prescription drugs. For this reason, the use of other legal opioids could cause a person to eventually begin to use heroin and become at risk of having an overdose.
It must also be noted that those same opioid painkillers can also cause an overdose on their own. This typically happens if a person begins to use the drugs differently than how they were prescribed. For instance, taking an extra dose of prescription pain pills or mixing them with alcohol could lead to an overdose. Overdoses caused by other opioids tend to have the same effects as those stimulated by heroin.
What Are the Signs of a Heroin Overdose?
Being able to recognize the signs of a heroin overdose makes it more likely that you can get someone the help that they need before they experience long-term consequences. With a typical overdose, you will notice that a person’s breathing is slowed or depressed. They may also have a weak pulse that indicates that blood is not circulating through their body properly.
A person who is still conscious may be disoriented and will keep trying to go to sleep. If their eyes are open, then you may detect signs of an overdose in their eyes, such as pinpoint pupils. If this is the case, then you need to do everything you can to keep them awake until they receive treatment to stop the overdose. Over time, a person will continue to lose their ability to maintain consciousness.
It is also common to find someone already unconscious. When this happens, call for emergency services immediately and begin to apply CPR and first aid. Make sure to tell the emergency responders about the person’s history with heroin so that they can treat the suspected overdose properly.
Why Do Some People Overdose and Others Don’t?
Some people use heroin for many years without overdosing. Others might experience an overdose from a single use. Any type of drug can have unpredictable effects, but there are some risk factors that increase a person’s chances of having an overdose.
For instance, a person who uses heroin in large amounts may take more than their body can handle. Using heroin from unsafe sources can also lead to overdose. Many drug dealers cut heroin with other substances or claim that something is heroin when it is not. In these instances, a person may have a reaction to another chemical that is mixed with the heroin.
There is also an increased risk of having an overdose among people who have stopped using the drug and then experience a relapse. After a relapse, a person may try to use the same amount of heroin that they used before they got treatment. After they complete rehab, their body’s tolerance lowers. Due to the serious risk of overdoses among people who relapse, it is always best to seek professional help at the first sign that you or someone else might be about to use heroin again.
What Can Someone Do to Save a Person Who Is Overdosing?
Family and friends of a drug user are often in a position to serve as a first responder during an overdose. The U.S. Surgeon General has issued recommendations that people who are involved with heroin in any way should talk to their physician about having naloxone on hand at home.
Naloxone is a medication that can stop the effects of heroin immediately and reverse an overdose. The medication can be delivered through an injection or nasal spray, and a person can even administer it to themselves if they realize they are overdosing before they lose consciousness or the ability to react to their symptoms.
If you see someone with the signs of an overdose, call for help immediately. Then, administer naloxone if you have it available. You will also need to check the person’s breathing and administer rescue breaths as needed until help arrives. Keep in mind that a person still needs emergency medical treatment even when the use of naloxone stops the overdose.
Sometimes, the body will still continue to struggle with the effects of heroin, and the person may go back into their overdose within a short period of time. They may also feel extremely sick following the administration of naloxone.
Will an Overdose Lead to Permanent Damage?
The severity of the damage a person is left with after an overdose ranges from no lingering effects at all to severe problems such as brain damage. Typically, long-term effects from an overdose are due to a person not getting enough oxygen to their brain for a prolonged period of time. According to the Brain Injury Association of America, approximately 50 percent of people receiving treatment for substance use disorders have some degree of trauma to their brain. For this reason, prompt help is vital to protect a person from the worst effects of their addiction.
Permanent damage can also occur if a person has an overdose in an unsafe place or experiences a secondary injury during the event. For instance, a person who is sitting up or standing when the overdose occurs could fall down and get hurt. People using heroin may also become disoriented and do things that place their health at risks, such as losing consciousness outside where they are exposed to foul weather and criminal activity.
Are Heroin Withdrawals Painful or Dangerous?
The best way to avoid finding out if heroin overdoses are painful is to stop using the drug. However, this is not so easy due to the addictive nature of heroin. It is common for people to return to using the drug just to avoid the withdrawal symptoms that can last for several months. These withdrawal symptoms can include physical sensations such as nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. A person may also experience depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms.
While these symptoms are uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening like an overdose is. In fact, there are many things that you can do to find relief from these symptoms so that you or your loved one is less likely to relapse.
Is It Possible to Quit Using Heroin?
The only sure way to avoid having a heroin overdose is to stop using the drug. Yet, relapses are common. The good news is that it is possible to quit using heroin. However, it does take work and a strong support network.
When a person quits using heroin, they may need therapeutic services that help them get off the drug and learn how to cope with the underlying reasons for why they started using it in the first place. Heroin addiction recovery typically involves receiving intensive counseling and therapeutic services for several weeks or months. This is then followed by aftercare, such as attending group meetings or seeing an individual counselor.
While it is reassuring to know that heroin overdoses do not cause immediate pain, it is important to note that losing someone you love to this drug is extremely painful. Fortunately, it is possible to help someone who is having an overdose when you are prepared and can recognize the symptoms. You can also help your loved one avoid having an overdose completely by talking to them about the need for treatment to overcome their habit of using the drug.