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    Drug Overdose

    As opiate based drug overdose contributes largely to the number of deaths resulting directly from illegal drug use, it is important to be able to recognise the symptoms of overdose which can differ tremendously depending upon which type of drug has been taken. For instance, cocaine or crack cocaine overdose may cause high blood pressure and heart attack whilst depressant drugs such as heroin, sleeping pills or tranquilizers can cause very low blood pressure and coma.

    Please note - If you are concerned that someone is currently experiencing drug overdose please call your emergency medical services immediately.  In the UK, call 999.  In the USA call 911.

    Opiate Overdose

    The main cause of death resulting from overdoses of opiate type drugs such as heroin, morphine or codeine is ‘depressed’ breathing (slow, shallow breathing which can potentially lead to unconsciousness and subsequent death) which is caused by a lack of oxygen reaching the body.

    Opioids suppress activity in the brain causing the body to lose its ability to react to the chemical changes (such as harmful levels of carbon dioxide) which would usually trigger the mechanisms responsible for breathing.

    Depressed breathing can also cause excess fluid in the lungs which is called pulmonary oedema. This can happen either gradually or else so quickly that this in itself can be a direct cause of death.

    If someone has taken an overdose of an opiate drug, it is probable that the pupils of their eyes will contract and become like pinpoints and that they will be displaying extreme lethargy if not already in a coma. Prolonged depressed breathing may result in extremely low blood pressure and dilated (enlarged) pupils. Quickly restoring their ability to breathe properly is the key to their resuscitation and ultimately their survival. It is for this reason that it is particularly dangerous when a person is alone as there is no-one there to summon help on their behalf when they fall into a state of unconsciousness.

    Whilst it is true that drug users can develop a ‘tolerance’ to many effects of the opioid drugs they are regularly taking, developing a tolerance to respiratory depression is a much slower process and even heavy or prolonged use does not mean that the drug taker is any less susceptible to falling victim to a death caused by depressed breathing.

    In a clinical environment, medical staff can administer an antidote to heroin overdose.  This drug is called naloxone and is an opiate antagonist.  This means that the drug replaces the opiates which are bound to receptors in the person's brain.  This causes instant withdrawal, but prevents the respiratory suppression caused by the opiate overdose.

    Opiate Addiction and Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms

    When addicted to opiates, such as heroin, the drug must be taken regularly or else withdrawal symptoms will begin - hence the addiction.  Such symptoms of withdrawal can include mood swings, irritability, head aches, nausea, cramps, sweating, trembling and more.  Whilst extremely unpleasant, opiate withdrawal is not fatal.  It is opiate drug overdose which is responsible for the most drug related deaths.

    Cold Turkey - another name for opiate withdrawal

    When someone is experiencing the withdrawal symptoms of a lack of heroin or other opiates, this is commonly referred to as going "cold turkey".

    Types of Opiates

    There are a number of different types of opiate based drugs.  These include both illegal drugs such as heroin and opium, along with prescription opiates such as morphine and dyhydrocodeine, and over-the-counter opiates such as codeine.  Visit our cross reacting opiates page for more information.

    How long do opiates stay in your system?

    Opiates are typically detectable in a person's urine for 2-4 days, perhaps as long as 5 days at the outside.  This is based upon the standard cut-off level of 300ng/ml used in Europe.  In the USA, where a 2000ng/ml level is commonly used, this retention time is slightly less.  Opiates in urine are detectable for a much shorter time than in hair.  Hair testing can detect opiate abuse for months after use - dependent on the length of the person's hair.

    Opiate Testing

    If you are interested in drug test kits to detect opiates or other drugs, please visit our home drug tests FAQ page, our drug testing page or our drug test kits page.

    Support for Drug Users / Families Coping with Opiate Addiction

    If you require any further information on drug overdose or opiate withdrawal and addiction, you can access immediate advice regarding all aspects of drugs and alcohol addiction in confidence and anonymously.

    The free and confidential FRANK helpline, also found online at www.talktofrank.com, aims to support families as well as users and contains an A – Z of drugs, FAQ sections, details of where to find support, etc.  Drug-Aware were recently added to the talktofrank database as a useful resource for their website visitors.  Visit our listing on talktofrank.

    If you need further help / support:

    In the UK, I would advise you to call Talk To Frank, the Government funded drugs / alcohol helpline on 0800 77 66 00 or http://www.talktofrank.com

    In the USA, I would suggest you call Addiction Search toll free on 1-800-559-9503 or http://www.addictionsearch.com for someone to steer you in the right direction.

    Some parents may choose to buy home drug tests as the first step towards regaining some control over their child’s drug and alcohol abuse / addiction.

    Please note - If you are concerned that someone is currently experiencing drug overdose please call your emergency medical services immediately.  In the UK, call 999.  In the USA call 911.

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