Heroin and prescription opioid medications have common origins in naturally occurring substances found in the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Among other things, this means that both heroin and prescription opioids are capable of producing fatal opioid overdoses. In a report issued in October 2014 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated how often people in the U.S. died from heroin use between the years 2010 and 2012, as well as how often Americans died from prescription opioid use during this same period of time.
Heroin and Prescription Opioids
Heroin comes from morphine, a natural opioid substance found in opium poppies. Morphine, codeine and other naturally occurring opioid substances also form the chemical basis for a range of opioid medications. Some of these medications are wholly or partially taken from components of the opium poppy, while others come from manmade formulas that effectively mimic the plant’s components. All opioid drugs and medications reach the brain through access points known as opioid receptors, which sit on the exteriors of cells found in the brain and certain additional body locations. Once inside the brain, their main therapeutic effect is a slowdown in central nervous system function that makes the individual much less sensitive to pain. Opioids also trigger varying degrees of euphoria, a form of heightened pleasure that occurs when the brain experiences a steep increase in its levels of a chemical called dopamine. This euphoria-inducing drug effect plays a major role in establishing opioid substances as sources of drug abuse and drug addiction.
The potential for opioid overdose is directly related to opioid substances’ ability to slow down activity levels inside the central nervous system. Up to a certain point, a slowed central nervous system will retain enough basic function to keep such essential processes as breathing and the pumping of blood operating at a life-sustaining rate. However, if activity in the brain and spinal cord falls off too much, these processes will start to fail. At the extreme, an affected individual can undergo the catastrophic failure of function that characterizes a fatal opioid overdose. Doctors, emergency personnel or trained laypeople can potentially avert a fatal overdose by giving an opioid user timely doses of a medication called naloxone. However, overdoses unfortunately often occur in circumstances in which timely assistance is not available. Practically speaking, this means that all serious opioid abuse comes with an inherent risk for lethal short-term consequences.
How Often Does Death Occur?
In the report published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, the CDC researchers used information gathered from 28 U.S. states as the basis for an estimate of how often Americans die from a heroin overdose or a prescription opioid overdose. The 28 included states were responding to a nationwide 2014 request from the CDC for data on such deaths between 2008 and 2012. The CDC researchers largely focused their attention on heroin-related deaths. They determined that, of those states that submitted detailed figures for these types of fatalities, 18 provided information that was high enough in quality to produce reliably accurate results. After analyzing the available data, the researchers concluded that the rate of heroin-related death in the U.S. increased at a dramatic rate of 100 percent in the short interval between 2010 and the end of 2012, from one death per 100,000 individuals to 2.1 deaths per 100,000 individuals. This translated into an increase from 1,779 total deaths to 3,635 total deaths. During the same time, the number of prescription opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people fell by close to 7 percent. However, despite this decline, opioid overdose-related deaths still remained much more common than heroin overdose-related deaths. A total of 9,869 verified prescription opioid-related fatalities occurred in the U.S. in 2012. The report’s authors note that the 28 states that responded to the CDC’s requests for data contained 56 percent of the total U.S. population during the years under consideration. All 28 of the participating states supplied reliable information on prescription opioid-related deaths. Despite the sharp rise in heroin-related fatalities and the drop in opioid medication-related fatalities, Americans still die from prescription opioid overdoses much more often than they die from heroin overdoses.