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, any other co-occurring substance use, a person’s age and weight. One of the most lethal contributing factors is heroin laced with fentanyl or other powerful substances. Heroin overdose is also more likely to occur in those who relapse during recovery. Individuals who have built up a tolerance and then abstain have a decreased tolerance level, increasing the risk of unintentional overdose.10

How Much Heroin Causes an Overdose?

Some sources estimate the lethal dose for a new heroin user to between 200 to 500 mg, while those with higher tolerance levels may be able to handle up to 1,800 mg. Other sources quote the lethal dose for an average 170-pound opioid-naive individual as 75 to 375 mg, depending on the route of administration.

Contributing factors include:

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

Moreover, a rash of tainted heroin batches is suspected in the recent deaths of many heroin users, making it even harder to accurately ascertain 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) — the lifesaving medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses overdoses — was used on all the victims, but three died. Officials believe a deadlier-than-usual 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, a large mammal tranquilizer 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl.3

A new report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reflects the severity of the heroin epidemic gripping Colorado and other states across the nation.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 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, and 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 Erie County in western 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 and save the life of a person who is overdosing on both illicit opioids like heroin and prescription opioids.

Quick Naloxone Facts

  • Naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist, meaning it binds to opioid receptors and reverses or blocks the drug’s effects.
  • It is a safe medication used widely by emergency medical personnel and other first responders 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, friends, family members and others who may be in a position to administer it more quickly and save the lives of people at risk of heroin overdose.13
  • A naloxone distribution program in Massachusetts reduced opioid overdose deaths by an estimated 11% in 19 communities implementing it, without increasing opioid use.13
  • From 1996 to 2014, at least 26,500 opioid overdoses in the U.S. were reversed by lay people using naloxone.13

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

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