How Many People Die From Heroin?Heroin is perhaps the most notorious drug derived from the seed pod of the opium poppy. Compared to the number of people who drink alcohol or consume marijuana/cannabis, relatively few people use this drug. However, figures for heroin intake have risen sharply since the early 2000s. Along with this increase in use has come a predictable increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses and deaths. A closer examination will help uncover just how many people die from heroin in a typical year.

Why Is Heroin Deadly?

Before looking at the figures for heroin-related death, it might help to know exactly why use of the drug can lead to a deadly outcome. The answer to this question begins with the nature of all opioid substances. Once they enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain, these substances slow down the basic rate of communication between the brain’s nerve cells (neurons).

Crucially, this slowdown has an impact on the neurons responsible for controlling two essential body functions: lung activity and the beating of the heart. In a person experiencing a heroin overdose, breathing falls below a life-sustaining rate or stops altogether.[i] Unless help is readily available, the drastic alteration in normal breathing can starve the brain of oxygen and lead to severe neuron damage or even death.

Another critical factor is heroin’s powerful capacity for triggering addiction. Anyone who repeatedly consumes the drug runs a clear risk of developing diagnosable symptoms of a condition called opioid use disorder. One of the most common of these symptoms is loss of control of heroin intake (or the intake of any other opioid substance). This means that, unless they receive treatment, people with a substance use disorder will continue to expose themselves to potentially fatal overdoses.

How Many Americans Use Heroin?

In 2002, roughly 166,000 people in the U.S. over the age of 11 used heroin at least once a month. Approximately 404,000 people in the same age range used the drug at least once a year. Since that time, with a few exceptions, heroin intake in America has risen steadily. In the fall of 2017, a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released its most recent findings. In 2016, a whopping 475,000 Americans over the age of 11 qualified as monthly heroin users.[ii] In addition, roughly 948,000 people tried heroin at least one time in 2016.

SAMHSA figures show that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are far more likely to use heroin than people in any other age group. In 2016, 0.3 percent of all people in this age group consumed the drug at least once a month (up from 0.1 percent in 2002). The rate of annual use among individuals in the 18-25 range was 0.7 percent (up from 0.4 percent in 2002). Heroin intake tapers off significantly in older adults (0.2 percent monthly and 0.3 percent annually). Preteens and younger teenagers also consume the drug at a lower rate.

Almost all of America’s major demographic groups have increased their heroin consumption since 2002. Use has risen most sharply among three specific groups:

  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • People between the ages of 18 and 25
  • Women

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Rising intake of the drug is not tied to income. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that households in all income groups increased their consumption of heroin by at least 60 percent between 2002 and 2013.

The increasingly common use of heroin forms part of a larger overall trend in opioid use, now so apparent that public health experts commonly refer to it as an opioid epidemic. However, consumption of the drug is an area of concern. Several factors help explain this focus.

First, many people who start out abusing prescription opioid drugs eventually switch over to heroin. This happens, in part, because people with opioid-related problems often find heroin easier to get than opioid medications (and cheaper, too). A notable increase in the purity of heroin may also help explain the surge in use. Critically, out of all causes of fatal drug/medication overdoses in the U.S., heroin ranks second only to a group of synthetic substances that includes the opioid fentanyl.

How Many People Die?

In the U.S., the nationwide rate of heroin-related fatalities is tracked each year by the CDC. In 2002, a little over 2,000 Americans experienced fatal overdoses of the drug. By 2016, the number of deaths attributable to heroin had risen dramatically to 15,446.[iii] In 2015 alone, the fatality rate rose by a remarkable 20.6 percent.

Who Dies?

While overall use of heroin has increased in the U.S., not all segments of the population are equally likely to suffer a fatal overdose. Men die from this cause at a higher rate than women. In fact, the single group most likely to experience a heroin-related fatality is men between the ages of 25 and 44.

Geography also plays an important role in the nation’s heroin death rate. CDC figures for 2015 show that the highest rate of fatal overdoses (6.3 per 100,000 people) occurred in the Northeast.[iv] A slightly lower rate of death (6.1 per 100,000 people) occurred in the Midwest. In the South 3.2 out of every 100,000 people died of a heroin overdose in 2015. The fatality rate was lowest in the West (2.4 out of every 100,000 people).

Potential Complicating Factors

The majority of people who use heroin (over 90 percent) also use one or more additional illicit/illegal substances. Some of these substances, including the stimulant drug cocaine, are known to significantly increase the risks for an overdose when used in combination with heroin or another opioid.

In addition, when processed by the human body, heroin chemically transforms into another opioid: morphine (the naturally occurring substance used to manufacture heroin in the first place). This fact can lead healthcare professionals to attribute a heroin-related death to other causes, meaning the actual number of heroin fatalities may be somewhat higher than reported.

Get Help for Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction, and other substance use disorders, are a treatable condition. For questions about available treatment options, call the certified professionals at Transformations Treatment Center. Reach out to Transformations today and get started on the path towards healthy recovery and a sober future.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Heroin
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States – Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Overdose Death Rates
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Opioid Overdose – Heroin Overdose Data
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