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Heroin Overdose: Addressing the Epidemic

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of a Heroin Overdose

Know the Signs:

  • Decreased level of consciousness.
  • Pinpoint pupils.
  • Heart rate and breathing slow down or stops.
  • Lips and nails turn blue due to insufficient oxygen in the blood.
  • Seizures, muscle spasms and vomiting (vomiting can cause death due to choking hazard).
  • Unable to awaken even if name is called or if shaken vigorously.

Legislation passed in 2009 made Illinois one of 16 states that allow distribution without requiring a doctor to prescribe every dose of naloxone, an opiate antagonist that reverses the effect of overdose from opiates like heroin. The law's implementation in 2010 ended what had been a legal conundrum of how to distribute a drug to someone to give to someone else, or to a user who might not need to take a dose for months.


It is very important to give help to an overdosing person right away. Brain damage can occur within only a few minutes of an overdose as the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain. It can lead to coma and even death due to respiratory failure.

Naloxone gives concerned loved ones and care givers a window of opportunity to save a life until emergency medical help arrives.

To ensure the safety of opiate dependent individuals in treatment, all Gateway treatment centers have naloxone available and trained professionals to administer it.

"The increase in heroin overdose deaths is troubling. That is why we do everything we can to ensure the health, comfort and safety of the teens and adults we treat for opiate dependency," says Sally Thoren, Executive Director, Gateway Chicago. "Before the law was enacted, in the event of a heroin overdose treatment centers would have to call 911 and lose precious minutes waiting for the help to arrive."

The Good Samaritan Overdose Law

Many residents may not be aware but Illinois is one of 14 states that have passed the Emergency Medical Services Access Act/The Good Samaritan Overdose Law (Illinois Public Act 097-0678), which went into effect on June 1, 2012.

To help reverse the trend of deaths attributed to heroin overdoses and other opiate overdoses, The Good Samaritan Law is meant to encourage bystanders witnessing a drug overdose to seek medical help for the victim. The bystander who calls 911 or seeks medical help will receive immunity from criminal charges for drug possession (except for marijuana). The overdose victim is protected, too. Before the law, too many victims were dropped off alone and unconscious outside the doors of hospitals or even abandoned by friends to die for fear of criminal prosecution.

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