Navigate Up

Full Library - A-Z Index


Print This Page

Heroin overdose

Heroin is an illegal street drug that is very addictive. This article discusses overdose due to heroin. An overdose is when you take more than the normal or recommended amount of something, usually a drug. An overdose may result in serious, harmful symptoms or death.

In any given year, approximately 0.6% of 15 to 64 year olds in the United States use opiates (heroin/opium). If a user becomes dependent, then they are between 6 and 20 times more likely to die than someone in the general population.

This is for information only, and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Alternative Names

Acetomorphine overdose; Diacetylmorphine overdose

Poisonous Ingredient

  • Heroin

Where Found

Heroin is made from morphine. Morphine is a powerful drug, and it naturally occurs in the seedpods of Asian (opium) poppy plants. Street names for heroin include "junk," "smack," and "skag."

See also: Morphine overdose

Symptoms

Airways and lungs:

Eyes, ears, nose, and throat:

  • Dry mouth
  • Extremely small pupils, sometimes as small as the head of a pin ("pinpoint pupils")
  • Tongue discoloration

Heart and blood:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak pulse

Skin:

Stomach and intestines:

Nervous system:

Home Care

Seek immediate medical help. Do NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • The patient's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths if known)

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The patient may receive:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, if needed
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Medications to treat symptoms, including a narcotic antagonist, to counteract the effects of the heroin

Outlook (Prognosis)

If an antidote can be given, recovery from an acute overdose occurs within 24 - 48 hours. Heroin is often mixed with other substances (adulterants), which can cause additional symptoms and organ damage. Hospitalization may be necessary.

Because heroin is commonly injected into a vein, there are health concerns related to sharing contaminated needles. Sharing contaminated needles can lead to hepatitis, HIV infection, and AIDS.

References

Doyon S. Opioids. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 167.

National Institute on Drug Abuse Research Report Series: Heroin Abuse and Addiction. National Clearinghouse on Alcohol and Drug Information. October 1997. NIH Publications No. 05-4165. Revised May 2005.

Bardsley CH. Opioids. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine - Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2013:chap 162.

Updated: 10/21/2013

Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com