Opioid Overdose Deaths: Study Reveals Majority Occur When Users Are Alone

Opioids like methadone and morphine are the leading cause of fatal drug poisoning in Denmark. A new study from Aarhus University’s Department of Forensic Medicine has shed light on the circumstances surrounding these deaths, revealing that being alone while using opioids significantly increases the risk of a fatal outcome.

The study, published in the journal Forensic Science International, analyzed 327 cases of morphine-, heroin-, and methadone-related deaths between 2013 and 2020 in four Danish police districts. The findings showed that 64% of the deceased were alone at the time of death, and most appeared unaffected by drugs when last seen alive.

Clinical Associate Professor Charlotte Uggerhøj Andersen from the Department of Forensic Medicine at Aarhus University, who led the study, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the signs of an opioid overdose. “People don’t usually die immediately after an overdose; it can take hours before oxygen deficiency causes a sleep-like state and organs shut down,” she explains. “If you have the right knowledge, you’ll be ready to react. It’s about waking people up, and if you can’t do that, call the emergency services.”

The study also revealed that people aged 15-34 were more likely to die from opioid poisoning while others were present, compared to those over 44. In many cases, witnesses had seen the deceased asleep after taking the drug. “Young people need to know that they should keep an eye on each other, and it’s important that you don’t just leave anyone who is sleeping if you suspect that they may have taken drugs – you have to wake them up,” urges Andersen.

Toxicological analyses of the deceased’s blood showed that opioids were almost always taken in combination with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, which can amplify their effects. Andersen stresses the importance of communicating the risks of cocktail drug usage to all age groups.

The study was conducted in collaboration with Antidote Danmark, an NGO that provides information on recognizing and treating opioid overdoses. Michael Lodberg Olsen, the general manager of Antidote Danmark, highlights the lack of knowledge about opioid abuse in Denmark and the crucial role of disseminating the study’s results to young people in drug-using environments. “It’s particularly important to disseminate the results of the study to young people who use opioids or are in environments where this happens. It’s crucial that they know the signs of poisoning. Because you can’t save yourself from an overdose – someone else has to intervene,” he says.

The study’s findings emphasize the need for harm-reduction initiatives in both urban and rural areas, focusing on communicating the risks and warning signs of opioid use. Andersen stresses the importance of recognizing sleep as a precursor to fatal poisoning, especially among younger age groups.

With opioid-related deaths on the rise, it is crucial to raise awareness about the dangers of using these drugs alone and the importance of intervening when someone shows signs of an overdose. By educating the public and promoting harm-reduction strategies, lives can be saved, and the tragic consequences of opioid abuse can be mitigated.

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