By: Elinore F. McCance-Katz, M.D., SAMHSA Chief Medical OfficerThere’s a new heroin on the street far more potent than the usual that people who are addicted to heroin have come to know and expect. This heroin is laced with fentanyl—a prescription painkiller used to treat the severe pain of cancer. Drug dealers are in a competitive business and like other entrepreneurs they look for ways to distinguish their product and make it something people will seek, including by increasing the potency of the heroin they sell. Unfortunately this has resulted in the deaths of dozens of people who cannot tolerate it. Within minutes of using this contaminated heroin they lose consciousness, breathe ever more slowly until they finally stop—and die.These days we’re seeing a spike in the numbers of accidental deaths among heroin users who may die because their heroin is mixed with fentanyl or other contaminants, or because they use it in combination with other substances like prescription pain medicine. The grim details of these deaths are captured in statistics and headlines we see in the news every day.
But there’s another part of this story that is critical to tell. It is the story of hope and treatment.
There is hope in knowing that heroin and other opioid overdoses can be prevented and managed. First, there is a way to help prevent people experiencing a heroin overdose from dying. The drug naloxone can be used as an antidote to these overdoses if given properly and in time. In this situation, naloxone can save lives.
To prevent death from overdose, people who are at risk for heroin or other forms of opioid overdose should have access to naloxone and a syringe so that it can be injected into a muscle in the case of overdose. Their family members and significant others should also be trained to know the warning signs of overdose and how to administer the naloxone in an emergency. SAMHSA has an Opioid Overdose Toolkit that provides important information on opioid overdose and how to use naloxone to save lives. Doctors can prescribe naloxone for anyone using opioids and who may be at risk for overdose.
Another important aspect of addressing this public health problem is getting people off heroin and other opioid addictions through medication-assisted treatment. People who are physically dependent on abused opioids—be they prescription pain medications or heroin—can be successfully treated! Every person is different and treatments should be matched to individual needs – but regardless of the route, the road to recovery is real. These medications in combination with other psychosocial and supportive therapies can help people get control over their addiction and go on to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
For information on where to find this help go to: http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/. SAMHSA has also Yesed the following treatment guides that describe best practices in treatment of opioid use disorders: