Health Topic Categories

- Alcohol and Drug Abuse -

March 15th, 2018

Narcotics Addiction and Overdose

Narcotics Addiction and Overdose

The Erie County Medical Society shares the deep concern and sadness of the community locally and broadly over the recent surge in narcotics related deaths. This surge is superimposed on the steadily climbing number of such deaths over recent years.


One factor contributing to the recent increase may be the emergence into availability of heroin forms that can be snorted or smoked instead of injected intravenously. First, this presents a less repulsive method of administration than intravenous injection. Second, it caters to the mistaken illusion that the drug is less dangerous when snorted or smoked than when injected.


While no “magic bullet” currently exists, progress toward the solution of the problem begins with understanding. Accordingly, we present this information to enhance understanding of the disease.


Scope of Problem

The year 2014 witnessed 47,055 drug overdose deaths in the US compared with 32,675 traffic accident deaths. These data are from the US Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of Transportation, respectively. Meanwhile,

here in Erie County, Pennsylvania, drug-related deaths rose 61% from 59 in 2015 to 95 in 2016.


Fentanyl has become a major factor in drug overdose deaths. Fentanyl is either legally manufactured but illegally obtained, or illegally manufactured and obtained. Fentanyl-related deaths increased 80% in 2014.


Internationally, the US is hit especially hard by opioid abuse. Americans constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, but consume 80% of the world’s opioids. Americans consume 99% of the world’s supply of hydrocodone, the active ingredient of VicodinTM. Finally, Americans consume two-thirds of the world’s illegal drugs.


Causes of Opioid Dependence

Opioid dependence is a disorder with pharmacologic, genetic, social, and psychodynamic causes. It is a true medical problem, not a moral failing or personality shortcoming.


Pharmacologic factors weigh heavily in opioid addiction. Certainly, drugs other than opioids have significant addiction potential; but, opioids, with their rapid development of physical dependence and their severe protracted abstinence syndrome, make abstinence especially difficult.


Genetic factors also contribute. There is a high degree of heritable vulnerability for opioid dependence. Gene polymorphisms for receptors for dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters also seem associated with opioid dependence vulnerability. Perhaps future medications can be designed to take advantage of these genetic factors.


Psychopathologic diagnoses seem to factor in. Preexisting mental health diagnoses seem to increase risk for long-term opioid use among adolescents with chronic pain.


Social factors have notable influence as indicated by the high rate of drug use in areas with poor parental functioning, high crime, and high unemployment.


Signs of Opioid Abuse

Opioid abuse is evidenced by any two of the following signs occurring within a 12-month period.

  1. Taking larger amounts than intended.
  2. Unsuccessful efforts to reduce use.
  3. Spending substantial time and activity related to opioids.
  4. Craving opioids.
  5. Failure to fulfill obligations of home, work, or school.
  6. Continuing opioid use despite opioid-related problems.
  7. Relinquishing social and other interests because of opioid use.
  8. Continuing opioid-related activities when those activities present a physical hazard.
  9. Tolerance and withdrawal, except when the opioids are used exclusively for medical reasons and under close medical supervision.

Tolerance, Withdrawal, and Addiction

Tolerance, withdrawal, and addiction are three separate entities. They are not just different ways of saying “addiction.”


Tolerance is the requirement for increased doses of the drug to achieve the same effect. Thus, increasing doses of the drug are needed to induce the same euphoria.


Withdrawal is the occurrence of symptoms on abrupt cessation of the drug. The onset and duration vary with the drug. Heroin withdrawal symptoms tend to peak in 36-72 hours and last 7-14 days.


The symptoms of withdrawal are typically diarrhea, runny nose, nausea, “gooseflesh,” restlessness, tremors, abdominal cramping, muscle aches, and craving for the drug.


Addiction consists of drug craving, compulsive use, and strong tendency to relapse after withdrawal.



At some unspecified point, the side effects of opioid use turn into toxicity. The typical side effects are small pupils, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, and constipation. As side effects become toxicity, blood pressure may fall, stupor develops (sometimes to the point of unresponsiveness), and respirations slow (sometimes to the point of stopping).


Toxicity Treatment

Clearly, respiratory insufficiency is an emergency, as inadequate respirations lead to death or irreversible brain damage in only a few minutes. The treatment is to begin artificial respiration and reverse the opioid.


The principal opioid reversal agent is naloxone. At one time, this medication was supplied only in glass ampoules for professional use. The ampoules had to be broken open and the medication drawn into a syringe and subsequently injected into a flowing IV line. Administration systems for this medication have been redesigned to be more user-friendly so that the lay public can utilize them in an emergency situation.


In 2014, the FDA approved a naloxone autoinjector for home use by family members and caregivers. The device is designed for use on the outer thigh, through clothing. It has no visible needle, contains two doses of naloxone, and comes with voice prompts that begin playing as soon as it is removed from the box. A trainer mock-up allows the potential user to acquire the “feel” of the device without actually administering any medication.


In 2015, the FDA approved naloxone for intranasal spray. This permits bystander rescue by simply spraying half the naloxone charge into each nostril of an unresponsive patient.


A shortcoming of these two rescue technologies is the short duration of the reversal medication, naloxone. The reversal dissipates quickly and the respiratory depressant effect of the opioid reestablishes itself. The temporary reversal of the opioid requires subsequent transportation to the emergency department (ED) to preclude subsequent respiratory re-arrest. The newly revived patient sometimes refuses such transportation for fear of being put into a situation where the craved opioids are unavailable.


Addiction Treatment


Addiction treatment is a different matter from toxicity treatment. Toxicity treatment involves the emergency treatment of respiratory arrest. Addiction treatment is less emergent but more complicated.


The goals of addiction treatment are

  1. Ameliorating withdrawal symptoms
  2. Reducing cravings
  3. Reducing needle sharing and promiscuous behavior leading to the spread of other diseases as HIV and hepatitis
  4. Reducing relapse rates 
  5. Reducing drug diversionMaintaining longer abstinence


  • The general outline of addiction treatment is
    1. Switch the patient from short-acting opioids to longer-acting opioids. This reduces the “rush” of the rapid opioid onset and the “withdrawal” of the rapid opioid offset. It also reduces target drug craving and replaces the more dangerous target drugs with drugs having a broader margin of safety.
    2. Switch the patient to opioids of a different form, such as subcutaneous implants, that cannot easily be diverted to street sale.
    3. Switch the patient to oral opioids combined with opioid reversal agents that are effective intravenously but not orally. This reduces the risk of these drugs being diverted to intravenous use for the attainment of a “rush.”  
    4. Slowly taper the substituted opioid to reduce withdrawal and craving.
    5. Add adjuvants as clonidine and COMT inhibitors to prolong abstinence and reduce cravings.
    6. Reduce stress with propranolol to reduce the risk of relapse.
    7. Begin cognitive behavioral therapy to help identify and avoid situations conducive to relapse.
    8. Recognize that detoxification alone is not sufficient to effect long-term abstinence.
    9. Institute group therapy to help minimize the social stigma of having lost the ability to control one’s behavior with respect to a substance.
  • Things You Need to Know

    1. Even after prolonged recovery, it is never possible to use the target substance in a controlled manner.
    2. Treatment alone is hardly ever successful without rehabilitation.
    3. Will power is not enough.
    4. Relapse during recovery is not unusual and could be a valuable experience.
    5. Dysphoria, or unpleasant mood effect after abstinence, is the main reason for relapse.
    6. Even after long abstinence, it is necessary to avoid high-risk situations.
    7. A major aid to abstinence is Narcotics Anonymous.
    8. Friends and family must be compassionate but assertive and resist the urge to engage in enabling behavior with the patient.
    9. Finally, remember that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw or moral shortcoming. Addicted patients deserve the attention and respect of the healthcare delivery system.
  • Sources

  • The primary reference here is Dixon and Xiong, which provides much useful information, but is written at a technical level. I have reformulated some of the information to make it more available to the general public.


    Dixon, D., DO, & Xiong, G., MD. (2017, May 03). Opioid Abuse. Retrieved May 31, 2017, from


    Rudd, R. A., Aleshire, N., Zibbell, J. E., & Gladden, R. M. (2016). Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — United States, 2000–2014. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,64(50-51), 1378-1382. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6450a3


 Thomas Falasca, DO

This video is a narcotics overdose case from Saint Paul's Emergency Room in British Columbia

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