Death Rates from Heroin Use
Heroin use in the United States is a growing problem. In 2014, it was found that1:
- 900,000 adults and young adults ages 12 and older used heroin in the past year.
- 586,000 of those individuals suffered from a heroin use disorder.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the average annual rates of past-year heroin use during 2011-2013 had increased 62.5% since 2002-2004.2
The growth in estimated prevalence has been driven in large part from increased heroin use among young adults ages 18 to 25.
Many individuals are first drawn to heroin in search of the pleasant euphoria the drug seems to promise. But how much will that momentary and fleeting pleasure cost you?
Read on to learn just how deadly heroin is – and whether its temporary high is really worth the gamble you take with each use.
Heroin Use Mortality Rate Statistics
Some numbers that help gauge the deadliness of a drug often include:
- The number of emergency department visits related to drug use.
- Death rates related to drug overdose or associated with the drug’s use in general.
- Increasing or decreasing trends for overdose deaths specific to that drug.
Just How Deadly Is Heroin?
In 2011, there were 258,482 emergency department visits related to heroin use – making heroin the third most frequent drug involved in emergency department visits (following cocaine and marijuana).3
The 21- to 24-year-old age group was found to have the highest rate of medical emergencies involving heroin (266.1 visits per 100,000 population ages 21 to 24).
Heroin Overdose Death Rates
Most recently, 2014 has seen the highest number of drug overdose deaths on record, reaching nearly 50,000 in a single year.4 Opioids – which may include both prescription pain relievers and heroin – have accounted for 61% of all drug overdose deaths in this same year.
Rising Overdose Deaths Since 2002
The heroin overdose death rate has shown a relatively steady increase since 2002, with the sharpest rate increase beginning in 2011:
Number of Heroin Overdose Deaths
By 2013, the number of heroin overdose deaths had jumped to 8,000 from about 2,000 in 2002 – or an increase of more than 286%.2,5
Additional facts about heroin-related overdose tragedies2:
- While males have traditionally accounted for the majority of heroin overdose deaths, yet deaths among females have doubled since 2002.
- 59% of heroin-related overdose deaths in 2013 involved at least one additional drug.
Most overdose deaths show involvement of multiple drugs – most typically heroin plus cocaine or heroin plus opioid pain relievers.2 Abuse of opioid pain relievers was found to be the strongest risk factor for heroin abuse, according to the CDC.
Accidental Heroin Deaths
If you use heroin, it’s especially important for you to note that the majority of deaths caused by drug overdose in these studies were found to be unintentional.
The CDC found that of the 43,982 deaths due to drug poisoning in 2013, 81% were unintentional – while 12% were intentional suicides and 6% were of undetermined intent.6
That large percentage means that even if you only intend to use the drug recreationally or simply for occasional use, you are still highly vulnerable to accidental overdose and possible death.
Who Uses Heroin the Most?
In general, heroin use has increased across most demographic groups. CDC’s 2015 and 2016 opioid statistics reported that heroin use has been shown to be highest among2,4:
- Young adults.
- Non-hispanic whites.
- Those with an annual household incomes less than $20,000.
- Those residing in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Southern regions of the United States.
Why Do People Use Heroin?
Major factors that have driven the nation’s rising heroin use have included4:
- Increased availability of heroin.
- Low cost of heroin.
- High purity.
How Heroin Can Kill You
There are several different ways heroin abuse can kill you – from long-term organ damage to infectious diseases to drug overdose.
Long-term Organ Consequences
Long-term heroin use can have severe health consequences – giving rise to numerous complications with the body’s various organs and tissues. If you use heroin chronically, you may experience any of the following7,8:
- Chronic viral liver disease.
- Liver cancer in association with viral hepatitis.
- Kidney disease.
- Lung complications (such as pneumonia and tuberculosis).
- Arthritis and other rheumatologic conditions.
- Collapsed veins.
- Infection of heart lining and valves.
Infectious Diseases from Needle-sharing
Heroin use may precipitate risky behaviors such as needle sharing and unsafe sexual practices. These behaviors carry a greater risk of exposing a person to infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS. Death may even result from these health complications.
Viral hepatitis is spread through contact with infected blood or body fluids such as semen and saliva. For this reason, injection drug users are at highest risk for contracting hepatitis B and C – both viruses of the liver. If left untreated, these viral infections may become chronic and eventually lead to death.9
Transmission of HIV/AIDS is similar to that of viral hepatitis – through contact with blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. HIV severely damages the immune system and the body’s ability to protect itself against disease. Once contracted, continued illicit drug abuse can further worsen the symptoms of HIV.10
An overdose occurs when a person has consumed a drug dose that is higher than what the body can tolerate. Heroin overdose may result in a number of devastating health consequences, including death11:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Frank respiratory arrest.
- Low blood pressure.
How Does Heroin Overdose Kill?
When heroin enters the body, it interacts with opioid receptors in the brain. In the presence of opioid substances, these special protein binding sites initiate a chain of events that ultimately minimize pain and, additionally, stimulate sensations of pleasure.12
From Initial Rush to Slowed Organ Functioning
The initial rush that heroin abusers feel is a result of this mechanism and will depend on how much of the drug is taken and how quickly it has entered the brain. These initial effects typically do not last long and are superseded by unpleasant symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. As heroin works to depress a number of organ processes, the body begins to work at a slower pace for several hours following use.
Users often feel profoundly drowsy – nodding off uncontrollably. Breathing can slow to the point of stopping altogether, resulting in widespread lack of oxygenation, coma, permanent brain damage and, even, the potential for death. Simply put – when you overdose on heroin, you run the risk that your body loses the ability to breathe effectively.
Those who overdose on heroin also run the risk of marked cardiac depression, wherein the heart is also not functioning at normal levels and blood circulation slows.
Tolerance and Relapse
Regular use of heroin can lead to tolerance. You will know that tolerance has developed when you have to seek higher doses of the same drug to achieve the desired effect. Over time, the body becomes dependent on heroin. Compulsive heroin use often results, placing you at even greater risk of overdose.
One especially vulnerable time to potentially overdose is after you have successfully gone off of heroin for a period of time – only to relapse at some point thereafter.
While relapsing individuals often assume their body can handle the same drug doses it was able to tolerate before the period of drug abstinence, this belief is simply not true. As a result, the heroin user often ends up taking what was once considered a normal heroin dose – only to result in unintentional death, as the body’s tolerance to this “normal” dose is no longer what it used to be.
How Much Heroin Can Kill You?
As the sources, potency, routes of administration and other variables render it nearly impossible to control for, there is no consensus on one specific dose of heroin that will be too high for your body to handle.
One study of blood morphine concentrations did determine that individuals who had a morphine blood concentration of 0.2 mg/L or greater ended up dying from drug overdose.13
Heroin is often compared to the drug morphine, as heroin is made by combining morphine with a chemical called acetic anhydride. However, as a result of the chemical modification, heroin is 3 times more potent than morphine – so the fatal dose of heroin would be expected to be even less than that of morphine.14
Even serum drug concentrations of heroin are difficult to interpret without knowing users’ tolerance levels. The heroin dose that would be an overdose for your body would depend on several factors:
- Is it your first time using heroin? First time users may be more susceptible to overdose than experienced users because they do not know how much to take.
- Are you a long-time heroin user? Experienced users are also at high risk for overdose, as their bodies become differentially tolerant to various drug effects – requiring greater doses to achieve the same pleasant effects might result in dangerous respiratory depression because tolerance to this effect remains at a lower level.
- Are you a recovering heroin user who has relapsed? Recovering heroin users may relapse and risk fatal overdose if they take a higher dose than what their body can handle after a period of abstinence.
- Are there also other drugs involved? An overdose may also depend on whether other drugs are involved.
Treatment Options for Your Heroin Addiction
Perhaps you are deep in the throes of addiction and you feel overwhelmed and hopeless about ever being able to get out of your relationship with heroin. Or perhaps it is your loved one who battles with this lethal addiction.
Whether it’s you or a loved one in need of help, it’s important to remember that recovery is indeed possible. There are a number of treatment options and facility types that can help walk you towards a new life without heroin:
- Luxury rehab facilities offer around-the-clock residential addiction treatment alongside an array of high-end, resort-like amenities that can maximize your comfort during your recovery.
- Executive rehab facilities offer similar treatment packages to luxury centers – only these facilities also offer the resources and structure that allows busy professionals to maintain an active presence in their workplace throughout recovery.
- Standard rehab programs offer quality addiction treatment in either residential (inpatient) or non-residential (outpatient) settings. These facilities are often more affordable than either luxury or executive programs, as they don’t offer the same range of plush amenities.
Learn More and Find an Addiction Treatment Center
Would you like to learn more information about heroin overdose and what you can do to get out of a heroin addiction? Call 1-888-744-0789 to speak with one of our recovery advisors. We would be happy to answer any questions you may have and to help walk you through your addiction treatment options. You don’t have to go it alone.
- Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2015). Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (HHS Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50).
- Vital Signs: Demographic and Substance Use Trends Among Heroin Users – United States, 2002-2013. (2015). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR, 64(26):719-725.
- National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits. (2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4760 DAWN Series D-39. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths – United States, 2000-2014. (2016). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR, 65(50):1378-82.
- Overdose Death Rates. (2015). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- NCHS Fact Sheet: NCHS Data on Drug Poisoning Deaths. (2015). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Viral Hepatitis – A Very Real Consequence of Substance Use. (2013). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use? (2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Why does heroin use create special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C? (2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- DrugFacts: HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse: Intertwined Epidemics. (2012). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia: Heroin overdose. (2013). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bethesda, MD.
- What are the immediate (short-term)) effects of heroin use? (2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Meissner, C., et al. Fatal versus non-fatal heroin “overdose”: blood morphine concentrations with fatal outcome in comparison to those of intoxicated drivers. Forensic Sci Int. 2002 Nov; 130(1):49-54.
- WHO | Basic Analytical Toxicology. (1995). World Health Organization.