18 Mar Heroin Overdose Deaths Triple in North Carolina
Heroin is the opioid drug of abuse well known for its potential to trigger non-fatal or fatal episodes of opioid overdose. Broadly speaking, the rate of overdose death related to heroin use has been rising across the U.S. for the last several years. In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a team of American researchers used a comparison with the rate of prescription opioid overdose-related death to chart the changes in the rate of heroin overdose-related death over a seven-year period ending in December 2013.
Opioids and Overdose
Whether they’re illicit/illegal drugs of abuse or legitimate medications, all opioid substances enter the bloodstream and reach the brain through access points known as opioid receptors. Inside the brain, all opioids do several things: slow down the rate of communication between the brain’s primary nerve cells, dull the brain’s ability to sense pain signals and create a notable spike in a potent form of pleasure known as euphoria. The body relies on a certain level of communication in the brain and spinal cord to maintain control over critical functions in the respiratory system, the cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system and other key organs or organ systems. If activity drops below a critical lower threshold, the brain and spinal cord can “forget” to control these functions. When opioid intake is the cause of problems, this chain of events marks the onset of an opioid overdose.
A person experiencing an opioid overdose can develop a range of symptoms that includes dilated pupils, shallow or absent breathing, convulsions or seizures, loss of consciousness, an irregular heartbeat or heart stoppage. The most severe, life-threatening symptoms usually appear in people who consume a relatively large dose of an opioid drug or medication. Exactly what constitutes such a dose varies from individual to individual. While prompt medical care can potentially avert fatal overdose outcomes, many severely affected people die without receiving such care.
Prescription Overdoses vs. Heroin Overdoses
In the U.S., the rate of prescription opioid abuse far outstrips the rate of heroin consumption. This fact holds true, in part, because opioid medications are widely prescribed as treatments for pain and certain other physical ailments. The relatively high rate of opioid medication abuse translates into a relatively high number of opioid medication-related overdoses in comparison to the number of heroin-related overdoses. However, there is a link between prescription opioid abuse/overdose and heroin consumption/overdose. Current evidence indicates that many of the nation’s heroin consumers started out as prescription opioid abusers and transitioned into heroin use for reasons that include cost and drug availability.
How Much Is the Fatality Rate Increasing?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services used data gathered from the state of North Carolina to analyze trends in prescription opioid-related fatal overdoses and heroin-related fatal overdoses from the beginning of 2007 to the end of 2013. The researchers compared the numbers of deaths reported from both causes each month and noted the changes in relative rates that occurred over time.
All told, 4,332 North Carolinians died from a prescription opioid overdose between 2007 and 2013. Over that same span of time, 455 people died from a heroin overdose and 44 people died from a combined prescription opioid/heroin overdose. At the beginning of 2007, just one person in North Carolina died from a heroin overdose for every 16 people who died from an opioid medication overdose. However, by the end of 2013, the situation had changed drastically. At that time, one person died from a heroin overdose for every three people who died from an opioid medication overdose. The average person who died from heroin consumption was substantially younger in 2013 than in 2007. Throughout the time frame under consideration, most of the deaths related to opioid medication intake and heroin intake occurred in cities or nearby suburbs.
The study’s authors believe their findings clearly reflect America’s increased rate of heroin overdose-related death over the last several years. They also believe their findings indicate an increased need to conduct anti-heroin public health campaigns targeted at younger adults, since those individuals are the most heavily affected by the spike in overdose occurrences. Finally, the authors call for additional research aimed at fully explaining all of the factors underlying the shift from opioid medication abuse to heroin consumption.
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