Heroin overdose and Philip Seymour Hoffman: Here’s how heroin kills people

Heroin overdose and Philip Seymour Hoffman: Here’s how heroin kills people

When the celebrated 46-year-old actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on his bathroom floor recently with a syringe sticking out of his left arm, it sent shock waves around the world. The actor's popularity was immense, and his sordid and tragic end was a shock to friends and fans everywhere. However, the truth is that more than 100 people die from drug overdoses every day in the U.S. These statistics have been rocketing up for more than a decade. And they prove that you don't have to be rich and famous, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger or Cory Monteith, to overdose on drugs. Overdose deaths strike Americans from all walks of life - 36,000 of them a year. Hoffman's demise has drawn attention to the growing threat of street heroin. And although Hoffman's autopsy was inconclusive, the evidence at the scene looks pretty conclusive. Empty heroin packets were everywhere, and more than 50 full packets were stashed in the apartment. Although the investigation into Hoffman's death continues, one indisputable fact remains: heroin can kill you, it can be shockingly quick, and it always happens when it's least expected.

How heroin kills people

Injecting heroin creates euphoric effects sooner and more intensely than snorting, eating or smoking it. The user feels instantly relaxed and free from pain and anxiety. Here's what happens: The body converts heroin to morphine, which is very similar to the body's natural endorphins - the chemicals your brain makes to reduce pain and stress. The morphine then binds to the brain's "opioid receptors" just as endorphins would, reducing pain, relaxing muscles and creating euphoria. Also, breathing becomes much slower and shallower. However, too much of the drug at one time can cause so much relaxation that the body literally "forgets to breathe". Even when you're asleep, your body keeps breathing. But opioid overdose drives the breathing instinct so far down that it can shut off. The result is oxygen starvation, organ damage, brain death and finally, complete body death. Heroin overdose can also cause sudden low blood pressure which reduces blood flow to the brain and body. It can also cause irregular heart rhythm, which can also reduce blood supply. And it can cause excess fluid in the lungs - called pulmonary edema - which makes it difficult or impossible to breathe. Studies show that former heroin users - like Philip Seymour Hoffman - are far more likely to overdose when they go back on heroin than new users. This may be because they don't realize that they can't tolerate the high doses they used to take when they were heavy users.

Drug overdoses kill 36,000 Americans every year - 100 every day

Hoffman's death has prompted law enforcement officials to step up their warnings that heroin is making a comeback because it's so much cheaper than "legal heroin" - painkillers like OxyContin and oxycodone. CDC OD stats chart The Centers for Disease Control reports that 100 people die every day from drug overdoses - more than 36,000 a year. In 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 11 had tried heroin at least once, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Roughly 23% of those risk-takers will become addicts, says NIDA. The CDC has reported these disturbing facts:
  • Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher.
  • Most overdose deaths are caused by prescription drugs. In 2008 there were 14,800 prescription painkiller deaths.
  • In 2010, 2 million people reported using prescription painkillers "non-medically" for the first time - that's nearly 5,500 people a day.
Although most overdose deaths are caused by prescription drug painkillers like OxyContin and oxycodone, heroin overdose is a growing menace. There's never been a greater need for effective medical management of opiate/opioid withdrawal. The medical heroin detox protocols pioneered at Novus Medical Detox Center make heroin detox safer, more comfortable and effective than anywhere else. (Picture credit: Centers for Disease Control.)

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