Opioids have become major players in the addiction and overdose crisis throughout the past several years. Morphine is one of the most common opioids in the world, and it has been used and misused for more than a century. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, around 3.3% of people 12 years old or older misused prescription opioids like morphine. The survey found that 9.5 million people misused opioids in general in 2020.
Morphine is a powerfully addictive drug, and it can lead to an opioid use disorder that causes you to take prescription and illicit drugs. Using it recreationally increases the risk of a potentially fatal overdose. It’s crucial to recognize the signs of a morphine overdose, as it could save someone’s life or even your own.
What does a morphine overdose look like? What should you do if you witness someone experiencing a morphine overdose? Learn more about opioids and morphine overdoses and how they can be treated below.
How Does Morphine Work?
Morphine is an opiate found in opium poppy plants. It’s a naturally occurring substance, and it’s extremely similar to another naturally occurring opioid called endorphins. Endorphins are your brain’s neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your response to pain. They bind to opioid receptors all over the body and prevent pain signals from being sent or received.
Endorphins are so similar to morphine that they were called “endogenous morphine,” which was shortened to endorphin. Morphine can also bind to opioid receptors in the brain, but it’s much more potent than your body’s natural opioid. Morphine can stop moderate and severe pain symptoms that would be too much for your endorphins to mask. That’s why morphine has been used to treat pain symptoms for over a century.
Morphine also interacts with dopamine by increasing levels of the feel-good drug in the brain. This can cause a euphoric effect that gives morphine a significant abuse potential. Using morphine for too long or in high doses can cause you to develop a chemical dependence or addiction to the drug.
Opioid addiction can increase your risk of severe side effects and opioid overdose, which can be dangerous.
What Is an Overdose?
An overdose is a high dose of a chemically active substance that leads to severe side effects. An overdose may mean you took a drug at a high enough dose that your body could not process it effectively. Overdoses can also occur when you mix substances together that have similar effects on the body. In some cases, overdoses can lead to toxicity, which is when the drug damages a part of your body.
Not all overdoses are life-threatening, but they do involve uncomfortable side effects that can sometimes lead to medical complications. Opioids like morphine may be more likely to cause dangerous overdoses than other substances, especially when they are used in high amounts or mixed with other substances.
Is Morphine Overdose Life-Threatening?
Morphine, like other opioids, can cause life-threatening overdose symptoms. When an opioid like morphine is taken in high amounts, it can cause several severe symptoms. You may pass out, your heart rate will slow down, and your breathing may slow down. In fatal cases of a morphine overdose, the drug causes respiratory depression, which is when your breathing slows to a dangerous level.
Respiratory depression can lead to oxygen deprivation, coma, and death. A morphine overdose can be treated, but if you wait too long before seeking medical attention, it may be too late. In some cases, even non-lethal opioid overdoses have led to brain damage and other long-term consequences that were caused by oxygen deprivation.
What Are the Signs of a Morphine Overdose?
Like other opioids, morphine impacts the nervous system by binding to the opioid receptors that create a sense of euphoria, block pain symptoms, and slow down the nervous system.
During an overdose, morphine can slow the nervous system down to the point that it shuts off vital functions. If medical professionals can’t intervene in time, the person could experience major complications or even die.
The common signs of an opioid overdose include:
- Small or constricted pupils
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
- Muscle weakness
- Slowed or uneven breathing
- Severe constipation
- Blue lips and fingertips
- Cold or clammy skin
These are the apparent symptoms someone may notice. Loss of consciousness may look like the person fading in and out of consciousness or falling asleep. If the person is experiencing slow or uneven breathing, the morphine is affecting their autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for maintaining automatic functions. This may mean other automatic functions, such as blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate, are also impaired.
What Are the Risk Factors for a Morphine Overdose?
Anyone that misuses or abuses morphine is at risk for an overdose. However, some factors may increase your risk of experiencing a dangerous overdose. One of the biggest factors is having a substance use disorder. Opioid use disorders can take over your life, causing you to prioritize your next source of opioids. Using illicit drugs is inherently dangerous. Your morphine may be mixed with other substances that increase your overdose risk. Each dose of an illicit opioid is potentially life-threatening. If you’re struggling with morphine addiction, it may be difficult to stop.
Other risk factors can include:
- Injecting opioids directly into your vein
- Mixing opioids with depressants
- Medical conditions that affect the liver or lungs
- Co-occurring mental health conditions
- Using opioids after abstaining from them for a long time
The most common cause of opioid overdoses in the United States today is fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s used to treat severe pain. But it’s also made and trafficked by transnational criminal organizations and sold all over the United States. At the right dose, it acts similarly to other opioids, including morphine, but the problem comes with taking the right dose.
Fentanyl is extremely potent. It’s as much as 100 times more potent than morphine. Even though many opioid overdoses involve fentanyl, many people don’t even realize they are taking it. Fentanyl is often mixed into other drugs like morphine and heroin.
What Should You Do If You Witness a Morphine Overdose?
It can be scary to be the first person to react in an emergency, but if you’re able to recognize the signs of an overdose, it could save someone’s life. If you know someone has taken morphine and is exhibiting the signs of an overdose, it’s crucial to call 911 immediately.
After calling 911, stay by the person’s side. You may not be a medical professional, but there are some things you can do to prevent further harm while you wait for the paramedics:
- Move them onto their side. A morphine overdose can cause vomiting. If someone vomits while lying face down or on their back, they could choke and essentially drown. If they’re unable to sit up, move them onto their side using the Bacchus Maneuver.
- Don’t induce vomiting. A common misconception is that inducing vomiting helps clear the person’s system of any harmful substances, but this could create even more complications. If an overdose is happening, the drug has already reached the brain. As mentioned above, the person could choke on their own vomit if they can’t be put into a safe position.
- Keep their airways open. Breathing can become dangerously slow during a morphine overdose. In fact, a lack of oxygen is often what causes fatal overdoses. It’s crucial to keep the person’s airways clear and open for this reason. Keep them away from objects that could obstruct their airway, such as scarves or pillows.
- Don’t try to shock them. Caring for someone in a sedated state can be frightening, especially if they’re unresponsive. In a moment of panic, you may try to shock them awake by slapping them or throwing cold water on them. However, this could send the person into shock and make the situation worse. Additionally, don’t try to give them any food, drinks, or other substances, except for water or a medication called naloxone. Introducing new substances into their system could lead to vomiting or complicate treatment when the paramedics arrive.
What Is Naloxone?
Naloxone is a medication that reverses the effects of a morphine overdose. It works as an opioid antagonist by binding to the opioid receptors in your body and preventing them from activating. It then kicks the morphine out of your opioid receptors and stops its harmful effects on the body. This is what reverses the overdose.
Once administered, naloxone sends the person into an immediate withdrawal state. They may experience sweating, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, and shivering. It can feel awful, but it’s much less dangerous than overdosing. Drinking water may help to ease the symptoms and prevent dehydration.