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How Many People Die From Heroin?

In 2015, heroin caused 12,982 deaths, or 25% of drug overdose fatalities. That’s a significant increase from the 3,036 heroin-related deaths in 2010. These sobering statistics are indicative of an enormous public health crisis.

Consider these figures:

  • States with the steepest heroin death rate increases in 2015 were: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee.6
  • Current trends indicate the following states are experiencing rapidly growing heroin use: Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.7

What Are the Risk Factors for Heroin Overdose?

  • Addiction to prescription opioid painkillers
  • Addiction to cocaine
  • Addiction to marijuana and alcohol
  • No health insurance or a Medicaid enrollee
  • Race: Non-Hispanic whites
  • Gender: Males comprised 9,881 of the 12,989 overdose deaths in 2015
  • Age: The largest number of overdose deaths (4,292) in 2015 were among 24- to 25-year-olds
  • Living in large metropolitan areas8,9

What Happens in a Heroin Overdose?

As evidenced by nearly 13,000 heroin deaths in 2015, overdosing often proves fatal.

Overdose Warning Signs

  • Bluish nails or lips
  • Depressed breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Disorientation or delirium
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Repeatedly losing consciousness
  • Coma

Signs and symptoms may vary depending on the amount and purity of the heroin used. Symptoms may also differ if other substances are being used at the same time. In some cases a person’s age and weight may affect the severity of symptoms. A lethal contributing factor is when heroin is laced with fentanyl or other substances. Heroin overdose is also more likely to occur in those who relapse during recovery. Individuals who have built up a tolerance and then stop use have a decreased their tolerance level. A lowered tolerance level increases the risk of unintentional overdose. 10

How Much Heroin Causes an Overdose?

Because heroin is usually bought off the streets, there is no way of determining what is in it. Sometimes the seller may not know all of the ingredients. This makes it difficult to know how much will cause an overdose. Some researchers suggest that 200-500 mg would cause an overdose to a new user. The amount may be smaller depending on many other factors involved.

Contributing factors include:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Method of administration
  • Co-occurring drug abuse. It is common for a person using heroin to drink alcohol or use other illicit or prescription drugs.

Tainted heroin batches is suspected in the recent deaths of many heroin users. This makes it even harder to accurately determine what equates to a lethal dose. Some of these deaths were attributed to fentanyl, which is lethal in an amount equal to the size of three grains of sugar. 11,12

The Faces of Heroin Addiction

New Jersey

In Sussex County, New Jersey, 12 people overdosed on heroin in less than one week in April 2017. Narcan (naloxone) is a lifesaving medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses overdoses. This drug was used on all the victims, but three died. Officials believe a batch of heroin, likely laced with fentanyl, contributed to this upsurge.

  • Narcan deployments by Sussex County police average three to four per month — a 1,200% increase.
  • In adjacent Morris County, fatal heroin overdoses rose from 35 in 2014 to more than 62 in 2016.1
  • Since 2004, more than 6,000 people have died from using heroin in the state, with 918 in 2015 alone.
  • An investigation revealed at least 128,000 people in New Jersey were actively using heroin by the end of 2016.2

Colorado

Two men were found dead in their home on March 24, 2017, in Eagle County, Colorado. A third man suffering from respiratory arrest recovered after multiple Narcan doses. A subsequent lab analysis found the drugs contained a mixture of heroin and carfentanil. Carfentanil is a large mammal tranquilizer, 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. 3

A report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reflects the severity of the heroin epidemic in Colorado and other states across America.4

  • Heroin-related deaths climbed in Colorado from 79 in 2011 to 160 in 2015. Preliminary numbers indicate heroin deaths approached 200 in 2016.
  • Emergency medical services in Colorado used naloxone to treat suspected heroin overdoses. This was used at least 3,393 times in 2015, an increase from 997 times in 2011.
  • The number of people in treatment for heroin addiction more than doubled in five years, from 2,994 in 2011 to 6,815 in 2015.
  • About 70% of surveyed drug users said prescription painkillers contributed to their decision to use heroin. Around 61% said they experienced a heroin overdose.4

New York

A deadly batch of tainted heroin is suspected in the deaths of six men and one woman in 24 hours in upstate New York.

  • The county currently sees an average of seven overdose deaths a week.
  • In 2016, the county of about 900,000 people incurred more than 300 opioid- and heroin-related deaths.5

How Does Naloxone Help Prevent Heroin-Related Deaths?

Naloxone can quickly restore normal breathing. This can save the life of a person who is overdosing on illicit opioids like heroin or prescription opioids.

Quick Naloxone Facts

  • Naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist. It binds to opioid receptors and reverses or blocks the drug’s effects.
  • It is used widely by emergency personnel to prevent opioid overdose deaths. Unfortunately, by the time a person overdosing is treated, it is often too late.
  • Naloxone distribution programs provide naloxone kits to opioid users and those who can administer it more quickly.13
  • A naloxone distribution program in Massachusetts reduced opioid overdose deaths by an estimated 11% in 19 communities..13
  • From 1996 to 2014, at least 26,500 opioid overdoses in the U.S. were reversed by lay people using naloxone.13

Naloxone has proven efficacy in reversing opioid overdoses. But it is not a cure for addiction. Many people saved with naloxone still end up suffering a fatal overdose at some point. For this reason, addiction treatment is so crucial.

Posted on June 1, 2017 and modified on May 1, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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