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Opiates, Overdose and Permanent Brain Damage

Permanent brain damage due to an opiate overdose is a very real, life-altering consequence of opiate abuse. The dramatic increase of opiate-related deaths is now demanding public attention, but the consequence of permanent brain damage remains largely unreported.

If you or someone you love is abusing opiates, it is essential to understand the risks involved with an overdose.

How An Overdose Causes Brain Damage

Opiates and opioids (heroin, morphine, OxyContin, Fentanyl) are depressants, meaning the drugs slow down your breathing and heart rate. As such, the most significant risk of an overdose is the lack of oxygen.

An opiate overdose typically leads to unconsciousness and a very depressed central nervous system, which is responsible for your respiratory drive while sleeping. Essentially, when someone overdoses, the body can forget to breathe.

Oxygen is vital to the brain; without it, the organ becomes hypoxic and damage ensues quickly. A hypoxic brain injury occurs when the brain receives inadequate oxygen, and an anoxic brain injury occurs when the brain receives no oxygen. The extent of brain damage is largely dependent on the amount of time the brain is without adequate oxygen levels. Minutes, and even seconds, may dictate the severity of the damage.

The Effects of Hypoxic Brain Damage

It only takes three to five minute of oxygen deprivation to cause a permanent brain injury. Although it’s hard to quantify the extent of damage in relation to oxygen deprivation and time, the common effects of overdose-related brain damage include:

  • Memory loss and the inability to concentrate
  • Impairment of hearing and/or vision
  • The loss of coordination, movement and balance
  • The impairment or inability to read, write or communicate
  • Continued oxygen deprivation can then lead to severe retardation, a vegetative state, and death

The Importance of Rescue Breathing

If you find someone who has overdosed on opiates, and is not breathing, it is critical to perform rescue breathing to begin circulating oxygen to the brain.

While waiting for help to arrive, tilt the victim’s head back, pinch the nose, and seal their mouth with yours. Breathe out two short breaths, then one long breath every five seconds.

Not only can rescue breathing save someone’s life, it may help minimize the chances of permanent brain damage.


Learn more about the statistics and reality of substance abuse.

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