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How Many People Die From Morphine?

In 2014, there were an estimated 4,022 morphine-related deaths. Of those, 572 deaths were attributed to both morphine and oxycodone and 518 were attributed to both morphine and heroin.5

The accuracy of that number is in question because some deaths attributed to morphine may actually have been caused by heroin. The latter is quickly metabolized and often leaves no trace other than the existence of morphine, codeine and or 6-monoacetylmorphine in toxicology reports.

An understanding of the metabolic processes of opioids, assessment of morphine/codeine ratios, death scene clues and personal history are necessary to accurately discern heroin overdoses from morphine overdoses. Many experts believe that as a result, the number of heroin overdoses may be higher than published data indicate and conversely, the number of morphine doses may likely be lower.6

What Is Morphine?

  • Morphine is an opioid agonist, which means it blocks the transmission of pain signals to the brain by binding to nervous system proteins called opioid receptors.
  • It impacts regions in the brain responsible for pleasure, by binding to opiate receptors within the reward pathways.
  • Morphine is potent pain reliever used legally in the clinical setting, most notably in people with terminal cancer.
  • Although it is highly effective in managing severe pain, its euphoric effects mean it has a high potential for abuse.
  • Specific reinforcing brain patterns may develop as a person obsesses over taking the drug, causing them to compulsively seek it out.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorizes morphine and codeine as natural opioid analgesics and groups them together with semi-synthetic opioid analgesics, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone and oxymorphone.
  • A number of studies have provided an improved understanding of morphine addiction by clarifying the morphine-specific functional and molecular changes in multiple reward-related brain regions.1,2,3

Can Morphine Cause Death?

Misusing morphine by taking excessive doses or combining it with street drugs, alcohol or other prescription drugs can have dangerous consequences and may be fatal.3

Alcohol increases the central nervous system (CNS) effects of morphine such as sedation, drowsiness and decreased motor skills.

Concurrent use with other CNS depressant drugs such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, hypnotics, tricyclic antidepressants, general anesthetics, MAO inhibitors and antihistamines increases the risk of respiratory depression, low blood pressure, profound sedation or coma. Morphine overdose can result in any of the following symptoms:4

  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Convulsions
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Severe respiratory depression
  • Cessation of breathing
  • Circulatory collapse
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Coma
  • Death

What Is a Lethal Dose of Morphine?

In addition to concurrent drug use, morphine overdose is most commonly associated with abuse (e.g. crushing pills and injecting the drug). People with a high tolerance who increase doses for a euphoric effect also suffer accidental overdoses.

  • Doses of morphine over 200 mg are considered lethal for an opioid-naive person.
  • In cases of hypersensitivity, a 60-mg morphine dose can cause permanent impairment, coma or death.
  • People with long-term morphine addiction or those with high levels of opioid tolerance can often handle doses of up to 300 mg a day.
  • Death from morphine often results from pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs).8

Which Celebrities Died of Morphine Overdoses?

Though fatal heroin overdoses are far more common today, throughout history, several well-known people have died from morphine overdoses, some of whom had a terminal illness.7

Lenny Bruce: The comedian died of acute morphine poisoning caused by accidental overdose on Aug. 3, 1966. He was 40 years old and had been arrested several times in the early 1960s for drug possession.

Tim Buckley: One of the many singers who died from substance abuse in the 1970s, Buckley was 28 when he died on June 29, 1975. The official cause of death was acute heroin/morphine and ethanol intoxication due to inhalation and ingestion of overdose.

Chris Farley: The actor, comedian and Saturday Night Live alum died on Dec. 18, 1997, at age 33. An autopsy revealed Farley had died of an overdose of cocaine and morphine. Advanced atherosclerosis was cited as a significant contributing factor.

Sigmund Freud: The father of psychiatry died of physician-assisted morphine overdose (euthanasia) on Sept. 23, 1939, at age 83. He was suffering from extremely painful, inoperable cancer of the jaw.

Brad Renfro: The actor and musician enjoyed meteoric success and just as quick a demise, due to alcoholism and substance abuse. He died on Jan. 15, 2008, at the age of 25 from accidental acute heroin/morphine intoxication.
King George V: In severe pain from complications related to an unresolved case of septicaemia, his physician hastened the king’s death by giving him with two consecutive lethal injections. He received 750 mg morphine followed by a gram of cocaine shortly afterward and succumbed on Jan. 20, 1936, at age 70.

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