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Take My Breath Away: A Deadly Warning About Opiates

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You’ve just taken an opioid painkiller. The medication travels to your brain, making the pain sensations stop. The same opiates also make you feel much calmer, offering up a bonus anti-depressing effect.

And that’s the good news.

The bad news is opiate drugs also slow your breathing…and in case of an overdose, your breathing is slowed to a virtually non-existent and lethal level. The right amount of drugs slows your breathing; the wrong combination stops your breathing. Big difference.

In the U.S., a whopping 44 people die each and every day as a result of respiratory arrest brought on by prescription opioid overdose. The opioids depress your breathing, bring on heavy sedation and make it impossible to wake up. What’s more, the opioids found in painkillers are the same ones found in heroin, which caused over 8,000 overdose deaths in 2013.

Deadly and Complicating Circumstances

Whether it’s from mismanagement of prescriptions, combining painkillers with other sedating chemicals like alcohol or sleeping pills, suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea or heroin abuse, thousands die each year from opioid overdose.

A few of these lethal combinations include the following:

  • Eighty percent of those who are suffering from sleep apnea don’t even know they’re experiencing a breathing problem.
  • Many people on prescription painkillers are not as careful as they should be about drinking while taking the drugs.
  • When lacking sleep as a result of chronic pain, many people seek solace in sleeping pills. The problem is that taking sleeping pills on top of opioid medications can kill you.

Watching the Brain Channel

The high number of deaths resulting from opioid overdose has spurred researchers to find ways to make these drugs safer. And a recent study conducted by the University of Toronto has provided an encouraging breakthrough, allowing a group of scientists to identify exactly where opioids work in the brain and how.

A tiny spot in your brain, containing only a few hundred cells, regulates your breathing. This neurological “channel” is where opioids interfere with the breathing mechanism, slowing it down – often too much – and resulting in death.

The researchers found that mice lacking a specific potassium channel in this channel of the brain did not react in a “typical way” to opioid doses. When given opioids, their breathing remained normal. What does this mean and why is this discovery considered to be huge? Simply put; with this knowledge, scientists may be able to stop the most deadly effect of an opiate overdose: respiratory arrest.

Now that researchers know where and how the drugs interact with the brain and stop your breathing, they can conduct additional studies and figure out how to block the lethal interaction. Ultimately, they hope to develop new drugs that can be prescribed with painkillers, preventing negative breathing effects. The results? Pain relief without respiratory arrest and thousands of lives saved each year.

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