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Overdose and relapse risk in people addicted to heroin

Overdose and relapse risk in people addicted to heroin

03-31 | CDAH Team

According to the 2016 World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), heroin is the most lethal drug globally and its use has reached alarming levels in the U.S. In 2014, over 900,000 Americans aged 12 or above used heroin, representing a 145 percent increase from 2007. Mortality rates related to heroin overdose have registered an increase of five times since 2000.  As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2014 to 2015, heroin overdose deaths increased by more than 20 percent from 2014 with 22.2 percent increase in death rate of males aged 25-44.

The surge in heroin use in the U.S. can be attributed to several reasons. The clampdown on over-prescription of opioid medicines, increasing awareness among healthcare service providers and the public regarding appropriate usage of prescription drugs, and increased accessibility, lower prices and higher potency of heroin have all contributed to its increasing use. These factors also increase the long-term risks associated with relapsing to a full-blown addiction.

Due to the physiological and psychological dependence on heroin and other opioids, a sizable population of drug abusers relapses even after enrolling in detox programs. Psychological dependence on drugs generally lasts between one and three years, sometimes even for the entire lifespan of an individual.

Newly recovering individuals from heroin addiction are more vulnerable

Although the risk of overdose is high among all heroin users, people who have recently been through recovery are at a greater risk of overdose and relapse. The high vulnerability of this group is due to the following reasons:

  • Tolerance levels are usually quite low after treatment. This is exacerbated by the fact that recovering individuals are still struggling with cravings for heroin and a return to their familiar surroundings serves as a reminder of their drug use.
  • Even after treatment, recovering individuals seek to ingest the same amount of heroin that they have been previously accustomed to and may sometimes end up consuming more. Many of them cannot comprehend the fatal consequences after the body has been cleansed of the toxins and has lost tolerance to drugs. Breathing can stop due to the high levels of heroin in the body leading to possible death.

Past research shows that heroin users who finished a 28-day rehab program and underwent complete detox had significantly higher death rates than those who had not completed the recovery. The lower death rate in the latter group was explained by individuals’ higher tolerance levels since they had not completed the entire program. Among the study’s 137 participants, five died within a year of completing treatment. 37 participants were found to have lost tolerance, of which three died due to overdose within the first four months of completing treatment.

Comprehensive treatment, including the use of anti-opioid drugs, can maintain abstinence

A more comprehensive and holistic approach to treatment is advocated, which includes the use of anti-opioid drugs. Medication such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone are found to be very effective. Vivitrol is an extended-release injectable version of naltrexone which significantly reduces drug cravings by blocking the opiate receptor in the brain; it also prevents an inadvertent overdose.

Whatever the form of treatment, follow-up care is extremely important to prevent relapse. Like chronic physiological diseases, addiction necessitates ongoing care. Long-term treatment of 90 days or more yields better results to help an individual gradually ease back to a normal routine. Such long-term treatment includes a combination of medication, therapy, support groups and a sober living environment.

Most importantly, individuals need to bring about a complete transformation in their approaches and actions that are responsible for initiation into drugs and its continued usage. They also need to learn alternative coping skills and be cognizant of situations which put their lives at risk.

Addiction to illicit substances is dangerous, but relapse can be lethal. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to heroin or other opioids and is looking for holistic treatment options by the best drug rehab in Colorado, contact the Colorado Drug Addiction Helpline. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-218-7546 or chat online with our representatives for further information on drug addiction treatment centers in Colorado.


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