How To Treat A Heroin Overdose

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Like any opioid overdose, a heroin overdose can be fatal if you do not get help from a healthcare provider. Knowing the signs of a heroin overdose and how to communicate vital information to emergency medical services can help you prevent a fatal outcome.

Heroin Overdose Treatment

Treating a heroin overdose requires prompt and professional medical care from first responders and emergency department staff.

If you recognize heroin overdose symptoms, there are steps you can take to help keep yourself or a loved one alive.

However, these are temporary measures that are only designed to prevent permanent injury or death while you wait for help to arrive.

How Does A Heroin Overdose Happen?

Heroin is an opioid. Like all opioids and opiates, heroin works by attaching to the mu-opioid receptors in the reward center of the brain.

The interaction prompted by opioids causes a dramatic increase in the level of dopamine in the brain, creating a sense of euphoria and establishing the drug’s addictive potential.

When someone uses heroin repeatedly, they quickly build a tolerance to heroin’s effects. To achieve the same high, they have to use more, increasing the risk of overdose.

What Happens During A Heroin Overdose?

An overdose of heroin or prescription opioids begins when a person takes too much of the drug. At that point, the amount of heroin attempting to bind to the brain’s opioid receptors is toxic.

This toxicity results in an overdose, which may cause important autonomic body functions to cease.

Risk Factors That Can Cause A Heroin Overdose

Heroin is rarely sold in its pure form in the United States. By the time heroin reaches the states, it has been through several stages of distribution.

At each stage, each batch of heroin is more than likely cut with a laundry list of additives and adulterants to increase the profitability of the batch.

Heroin that is cut with a synthetic opioid, like fentanyl, is far more likely to cause an overdose when someone uses it assuming that the dosage will be the same as heroin without fentanyl.

The addition of weaker opioids, like oxycodone and codeine, can also increase the risk of overdose death in people who have opioid use disorders due to their synergistic effects.

Symptoms Of A Heroin Overdose

Learning to identify the early signs and symptoms of a heroin overdose is the easiest way to decrease the chance that an overdose will be fatal because it ensures that help will arrive early.

Signs of a heroin overdose include:

  • depressed breathing (shallow, slow, or no breathing)
  • discolored tongue
  • constricted, pinpoint pupils
  • dry mouth
  • slow heart rate
  • severe stomach cramping
  • low blood pressure
  • extreme drowsiness
  • loss of consciousness

If you notice anyone displaying these symptoms and suspect that they may have overdosed, call emergency medical services immediately.

How To Treat A Heroin Overdose

If you witness a heroin overdose, then you need to know what you can do to help treat it.

Fortunately, there are a handful of easy steps you can take to keep the affected person alive while you wait for professional help.

Call Emergency Services

Whenever someone is experiencing a heroin overdose, the first step should always be to call 911. The quick arrival of medical help is a critical factor in preventing overdose deaths.

Administer Naloxone

If naloxone is available, it can be administered to the person who is overdosing. It goes under the brand name Narcan.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made naloxone available to family members or caretakers as a nasal spray to make it easier to administer.

Perform CPR Or Rescue Breathing

If a person has stopped breathing, CPR can help keep them alive until medical help can get to the scene.

Chest compressions followed by rescue breathing can keep the respiratory system going until someone is able to administer naloxone.

How Does Heroin Overdose Treatment Work?

Heroin overdose treatment works primarily through administering naloxone either on the scene or in the emergency room.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that works by binding to the opioid receptors and preventing heroin or other opioid drugs from attaching. In doing so, it can actually reverse the overdose.

Of course, medical workers may need to continue to monitor vital signs and treat other symptoms until the person who has experienced the overdose is stable.

Where Can People Get Naloxone?

Naloxone is available in all 50 states at licensed pharmacies and is also carried by law enforcement officers.

Some states actively encourage private citizens to carry naloxone in its intranasal form, so that a dose of naloxone can be quickly administered to anyone experiencing an overdose.

In these states, naloxone and Narcan training are available through local pharmacies and harm reduction programs.

What Are Good Samaritan Laws?

In most states, there are Good Samaritan laws in place that protect those who provide assistance for someone during a drug overdose.

Follow-Up Treatment After A Heroin Overdose

An overdose is a reminder that heroin abuse has only one end and that the time to get substance abuse treatment is now.

Many hospital emergency rooms will have information about the recovery centers in your area that provide a heroin addiction treatment program.

Treatment options can include medication-assisted treatment and various kinds of behavioral therapy.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Heroin addiction treatment can have different stages: medical detox, clinical stabilization, and extended treatment.

This recovery process can help you get through withdrawal and discover the root causes of heroin drug use or opioid addiction.


Reversing an overdose does not get you through all the effects of heroin drug addiction.

Medical detox at an addiction treatment center can provide relief from heroin withdrawal symptoms and 24-hour monitoring by medical professionals.

A heroin detox program can also help you through the side effects of long-term heroin use.

Evidence-based Treatments

Evidence-based treatments can include recovery services like medication-assisted treatment (MAT) or specific kinds of psychotherapy.

These treatments focus on clinical approaches to recovery and are scientifically proven to be effective in peer-reviewed research.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

MAT can be used to manage withdrawal symptoms, but it is more often used as a maintenance program to help reduce drug cravings. This allows clients to focus on therapy.

Medications used in this kind of treatment can include:

  • buprenorphine/naloxone (Suboxone)
  • naltrexone
  • methadone

Find Substance Use Disorder Treatment For Heroin Addiction Today

If you or a loved one is seeking follow-up treatment for heroin drug addiction following heroin overdose treatment, call today.

Professional addiction treatment can make all the difference when it comes to achieving long-term recovery, and we can help you locate a rehab center that can help.


Canton, Massachusetts

Bedrock Recovery Center


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Plymouth, Massachusetts

Ohio Recovery Center


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Spring Hill Recovery Center


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