How Do Opioid Overdoses Kill?
Apr 09 2018 Read 1208 Times
It's no secret that opioids are both addictive and highly dangerous. In the US alone, drugs like heroin account for around 8000 overdose fatalities a year. The UK also faces an opioid crisis, with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs revealing that over the last four years the number of reported drug deaths involving opioids has spiked by 58% in England. With drugs like fentanyl now arriving on the scene, finding new ways to combat misuse and addiction is more imminent than ever.
The dark side of painkillers
Of course, while some opioids are illegal, others are highly efficient painkillers. Medications like codeine and oxycodone travel directly to the brain to cancel out pain sensations, as well as calm the body and act as an anti-depressant. So how can something legal and so widely used pose such a risk?
While they do have serious perks, opiate drugs drastically slow the breathing. In the case of an overdose, the respiratory system drops to lethal, virtually non-existent levels. It's not just illegal drugs that are a cause for concern, with respiratory arrest often triggered by prescription opioids. These sorts of overdoses cause almost 45 deaths a day in the US. When combined with other sedatives like alcohol and sleeping pills the effects can be heightened, and even more dangerous. Mixing sleeping pills with prescription opioid medications is another lethal combination, as is mixing painkillers with alcohol.
The fight against opioid overdoses
Over the past decade, the alarming number of deaths caused by opioid overdoses has inspired scientists to find new ways to combat overdoses. The University of Toronto is spearheading the cause, with a ground-breaking study pinpointing exactly where opioids target the brain, and how.
While the lungs keep the body alive, the team maintain that breathing is regulated by only a few hundred cells found in a tiny slice of the brain. Opioids actively target this neurological channel which is what slows the breathing and can cause fatal respiratory arrest. When trialled on mice, researchers found that rodents lacking a specific potassium channel in this section of the brain didn't react to opioids in the typical way. Instead, breathing remained normal.
Studies are now underway to block the lethal interaction in humans, as well as develop new drugs that could be co-prescribed with painkillers. Ultimately, this could allow doctors to harness the power of opioids, without risking the possibility of respiratory arrest.
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