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Opioid Toxicity Follow-up

  • Author: Everett Stephens, MD; Chief Editor: Asim Tarabar, MD  more...
Updated: Jul 14, 2016

Further Outpatient Care

The suddenness and potential severity of narcotics overdose, especially with intravenous use, have prompted some physicians to consider providing naloxone as a “take-home” medication, targeting high-risk narcotics users.[32] Currently, naloxone is not approved for therapy of narcotics overdose in an outpatient setting and cannot be recommended on a routine basis; however, the premise is interesting, given the rise in opiate abuse and potential morbidity and mortality.


Further Inpatient Care

Because the half-life of naloxone is shorter than that of many opioids (a particular concern with exposure to long-acting opioid preparations), any patient who is exhibiting significant respiratory depression, recurrent sedation, or any other complicating factors of opioid ingestion should be admitted for a minimum of 12-24 hours of observation. Appropriate cardiorespiratory monitoring should be initiated until the effects of opioid toxicity subside.

Most physicians recommend admission of any patient who requires a second dose of naloxone or who fails a 6-hour observation period in the ED. Some authorities recommend admission of patients with heroin overdose who present with significant respiratory depression caused by the increased risk of acute lung injury. However, this complication usually is evident within minutes of patient arrival. Thus, the patient who is asymptomatic following heroin overdose and has not demonstrated recrudescent toxicity during a 6-hour period of observation may be discharged safely.



Acute lung injury (ALI) is a well-documented sequelae of heroin overdose. It also is associated with propoxyphene and methadone and almost always is present in fatal cases of opioid overdose. Although the etiology is still unclear, the putative culprit is hypoxia and hypoventilation. The clinical findings are similar to those found in cardiogenic pulmonary edema (eg, cyanosis, dyspnea, pink frothy sputum, rales, tachypnea, tachycardia). ALI has also been reported in pediatric patients who ingest opiates in excess.[33] Unless fatal, the ALI clears in 24-48 hours with vigorous airway control and oxygen. Typical pulmonary edema therapy (eg, vasodilators, cardiac glycosides) is not necessary, and diuretics actually may contribute to severe hypotension.

Intravenous drug abuse (IVDA) carries an additional list of complications. Cellulitis and abscesses are frequent complications of IVDA, usually with staphylococcal or streptococcal infection; however, anaerobic bacteria are observed occasionally. Hematogenous dissemination of bacteria, commonly to the epidural space, can cause spinal epidural abscess. This also may occur from spread of vertebral osteomyelitis. Staphylococcus aureus is the most common organism, but gram-negative bacilli may be observed. Osteomyelitis in IVDA is well known; if a patient with long-term IVDA presents with back pain, this diagnosis should be added to the differential.

Site-specific sequelae, such as Horner syndrome from patients injecting into the neck region, may be observed. Particulate matter poses a threat because of embolic phenomena. Pulmonary emboli and peripheral emboli are two common complications. Thrombi initiated by vessel intimal damage from the needle may lead to similar syndromes. Inadvertent intra-arterial injection is another potential complication, possibly resulting in necrosis of the affected extremity. Intraneural injection may cause transient or permanent neuropathy.

Endocarditis is the most serious complication of IVDA. The diagnosis is difficult to make in the ED and requires a high index of suspicion. Although either side of the heart may be affected, the right side is involved more commonly than the left. The tricuspid valve is the most frequent site of endocardial infection. Murmurs may be heard. Repeated septic pulmonary emboli may be the only presenting signs, usually involving S aureus as the etiologic agent. Left-sided endocarditis can result from a variety of pathogens, including Escherichia coli or Streptococcus, Klebsiella, or Pseudomonas species. Physical findings consistent with endocarditis are observed more frequently in left-sided disease than in right-sided disease.

Pneumonia often is observed, particularly in the long-term abuser. Normal pathogens should be considered, but aspiration should be added in patients who have been unconscious. Tuberculosis should be added early to the differential diagnosis to avoid unnecessary exposure to health care workers and other patients and to ensure timely and adequate treatment.

Rhabdomyolysis, with or without a compartment syndrome, should be sought in patients who have experienced a potentially long period of unconsciousness. Necrotizing fasciitis is a life-threatening infection that is characterized by septic necrosis. A dusky, erythematous, tender, confluent rash that spreads rapidly and is associated with fever, chills, tachycardia, tachypnea, and leukocytosis should prompt aggressive resuscitation, aggressive therapy, and surgical consultation.

Certain medications can increase the risk of seizures; however, this is not common. Meperidine, propoxyphene, heroin, pentazocine, intravenous fentanyl, or sufentanil may cause grand mal seizures. Prolonged or unusual seizure activity should prompt reevaluation and consideration of intracranial injury or prolonged hypoxia.

Withdrawal from opioids is a complication that is not observed universally. Generally, the withdrawal syndrome is not nearly as severe as that observed with barbiturates or alcohol. The onset depends on the drug of abuse, varying 8-12 hours with meperidine and 2-4 days with methadone. Symptoms include piloerection, lacrimation, yawning, sweating, rhinorrhea, nasal congestion, myalgia, emesis, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. Symptoms peak between 36 and 48 hours and subside after 72 hours. Occasionally, symptoms last as long as 7-10 days. Treatment of withdrawal is symptomatic. The use of opioids on an outpatient basis to alleviate symptoms should be avoided. Alternate therapy may include clonidine, particularly when methadone is inappropriate, unsuccessful, or unavailable. The involvement of local substance abuse programs is key in avoiding long-term relapse.

The administration of naloxone to patients with true opioid dependence may precipitate withdrawal. Signs and symptoms similar to typical withdrawal are observed. The onset of action is often within 5 minutes and subsides in 1-2 hours. Symptomatic treatment is recommended. Opiate withdrawal is not usually life-threatening. Opiate withdrawal has been reported after the use of buprenorphine, an agonist/antagonist.

Adulterants, contaminants, and diluents are often added to illicit narcotics, often without the knowledge of the end user. In certain cases, these additives can be biologically active. In 1995, an epidemic of this nature was noted in New York City when heroin adulterated with scopolamine was circulated among heroin users. The intravenous use of the heroin was associated with severe anticholinergic toxicity; 370 cases were reported to local poison centers. Anticholinergic toxicity has also been reported as a complication of inhaled cocaine.[34]

Therapy to assist patients in avoiding complications of narcotic overdose include implants and depot injections of naltrexone. First appearing in the 1990s, commercial preparations provide sustained release of naltrexone. However, the 3-year mortality rates using naltrexone sustained release and methadone maintenance are similar.[35]


Patient Education

In April 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved naloxone (Evzio) as an autoinjector dosage form for home use by family members or caregivers. The product delivers 0.4 mg that may be administered either intramuscularly or subcutaneouslyin the anterolateral aspect of the thigh. The device includes visual and voice instruction, including directions to seek emergency medical care immediately after use.[36]

For patient education resources, see the Drug Overdose Center, Poisoning - First Aid and Emergency Center, and Substance Abuse Center, as well as Poisoning, Drug Overdose, Narcotics Abuse, Activated Charcoal, Drug Dependence and Abuse, and Substance Abuse.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Everett Stephens, MD Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Louisville School of Medicine

Everett Stephens, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD Regional Director of Pharmacy, Sacred Heart and St Joseph's Hospitals

John T VanDeVoort, PharmD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society of Health-System Pharmacists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Michael J Burns, MD Instructor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Harvard University Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Michael J Burns, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Medical Toxicology, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Asim Tarabar, MD Assistant Professor, Director, Medical Toxicology, Department of Emergency Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Department of Emergency Medicine, Yale-New Haven Hospital

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Mark Louden, MD Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine, Division of Emergency Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Miami, Leonard M Miller School of Medicine

Mark Louden, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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