After you’ve taken the first step to call EMS if you suspect that someone is overdosing on heroin, stay with the person to ensure they remain as safe as possible until the emergency medical crews arrive.
Fortunately, there is a medication that can immediately help a person suffering a heroin overdose. Naloxone (brand name, Narcan) works by instantly blocking the opioid receptors in the brain and body to prevent further heroin damage. Naloxone should not be used to replace professional medical care, however, because other dangerous symptoms may persist. In severe cases, additional doses of naloxone may be needed to help stabilize the user.
Medical treatment for a heroin overdose includes close monitoring of vital signs, and breathing assistance if needed. Heroin’s respiratory depression is one its most dangerous features, so ensuring that the patient can breathe is a top priority in cases of abuse. Mechanical ventilation is used to keep a person breathing in extreme cases.
Depending on the patient’s presenting symptoms, other supportive interventions may include:
It is important for someone who experienced a heroin overdose to seek treatment for their underlying substance abuse problem because this can help the person avoid a second overdose in the future.
Once a person is medically stable following an overdose, the next step toward recovery is to undergo a heroin detoxification (or detox) process. Detox involves a period of sustained abstinence in order to clear all of the heroin from the body. Often, this results in uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Heroin’s withdrawal, in particular, can be very unpleasant—often described as resembling a very bad flu—but professional monitoring can help minimize the discomfort. Often, FDA-approved medications for the management of opioid dependence (which include Suboxone, buprenorphine, and methadone) can help decrease cravings and facilitate both detox and ongoing treatment.
After detox, ongoing substance abuse treatment or rehabilitation can begin. This involves therapy sessions to help a person learn how to cope with cravings in a healthier manner, as well as to help them identify personal factors that have contributed to their heroin abuse.
Inpatient rehab programs offer an escape from everyday temptations in an entirely sober setting, allowing a recovering heroin user to focus entirely on recovery. And outpatient programs allow the flexibility of living at home throughout the program while attending regular therapy and counseling sessions.
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Medscape. (2016). Heroin Toxicity Treatment & Management.