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Opioids/Benzodiazepines Poisoning Treatment & Management

  • Author: Christopher P Holstege, MD; Chief Editor: Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD  more...
Updated: Sep 08, 2015

Prehospital Care

Prehospital care providers must place their personal safety before the treatment of patients who may be contaminated with an incapacitating agent. Emergency responders should not enter a contaminated location that has not been secured. Little is known regarding the risk of secondary contamination in health care providers exposed to patients with contamination from opioid or benzodiazepine aerosolized agents.

For civilian paramedics, exposed patients must be decontaminated prior to transfer. Absorption and subsequent toxicity is a risk from contact with patients who have been contaminated. Paramedics are at increased risk for toxicity in the closed confines of an ambulance. Caution must be exercised, especially for flight crews, because toxicity of the pilot during flight can lead to impaired judgment and subsequent risk of crashing the aircraft.

Initiation of intravenous access and the infusion of intravenous fluids should be considered. Before intubation, naloxone may be administered intravenously to patients with respiratory compromise and suspected opioid toxicity. Aggressive airway control must take precedence over pharmacologic reversal because the vast majority of morbidity and mortality results from respiratory depression.


Emergency Department Care

Once decontamination has occurred, the primary emphasis is simply supportive care of exposed patients. Emergency department staff must be certain that proper decontamination has occurred. Aerosolization of the agents from contaminated patients may occur and can pose a risk to hospital personnel.

Airway protection is paramount. In patients who present with coma, aspiration is a risk if adequate airway protection is not achieved. Hypoglycemia should be considered in all patients presenting with altered mental status and glucose administered when necessary. Naloxone may be infused in an attempt to reverse opioid activity (see Medication). Naloxone has an excellent safety record and is standard therapy in many institutions as part of the so-called coma cocktail. Flumazenil may be considered with caution because a number of contraindications exist in its use (see Medication). Thiamine administration should be considered in patients presenting with altered mental status.

Care may also include the following:

  • Intravenous hydration may be necessary; maintain adequate urinary output. Consider placement of a Foley catheter to monitor the patient's urine output.
  • Include continuous cardiac monitoring in patients who are symptomatic.


If an exposure to aerosolized benzodiazepines or opioids occurs, consider a number of consultations.

  • Medical toxicologists: Consider consulting these physicians early to assist in the diagnosis and appropriate treatment of patients with possible exposure to these aerosolized agents.
  • Critical care specialists: For patients requiring intensive care monitoring, consider early consultation with a physician trained in critical care medicine.
  • Law enforcement: If the cause of the exposure is a terrorist act against civilians, immediately contact the local law enforcement agency, health department, and poison control center. Also, contact federal agencies, such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
Contributor Information and Disclosures

Christopher P Holstege, MD Professor of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics, University of Virginia School of Medicine; Chief, Division of Medical Toxicology, Center of Clinical Toxicology; Medical Director, Blue Ridge Poison Center

Christopher P Holstege, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, Medical Society of Virginia, Society of Toxicology, Wilderness Medical Society, European Association of Poisons Centres and Clinical Toxicologists, American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Medical Toxicology, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD Associate Professor, Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F Edward Hebert School of Medicine

Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD is a member of the following medical societies: American Chemical Society, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Suzanne White, MD Medical Director, Regional Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital, Program Director of Medical Toxicology, Associate Professor, Departments of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics, Wayne State University School of Medicine

Suzanne White, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, American College of Epidemiology, American College of Medical Toxicology, American Medical Association, Michigan State Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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