Hospital admissions for heroin overdoses have more than quadrupled since 2010 in Pennsylvania, with the upward trend getting even steeper in the past year, according to a new report that confirmed medical centers are seeing the same distressing patterns as coroners' offices.
The vast majority of the hospitalized patients last year — about 70 percent — were between 20 and 39 years old, with an average age of 33. But 2 percent of patients were ages 15 to 19.
The statistics, collected from hospitals around the state, count only patients who were admitted. The vast majority of people taken to hospitals after overdosing are revived in or before arriving at the emergency room and were not included.
Prescription pain medications like Vicodin and OxyContin were responsible for slightly more overdose admissions than heroin — 1,775 vs. 1,524 — in 2016, but changes in hospital codes prevented comparisons with previous years. Opioids include synthetic pain relievers plus substances that are derived from the opium poppy, mainly heroin.
Patients admitted for pain medicine overdoses tended to be older, with 60 percent age 50 and above; the average age was 54. Twenty-eight painkiller admissions were for children under 15; there were no heroin admissions in this age group.
"These new findings continue to stress the devastating impact of drugs on Pennsylvania families, communities and taxpayers, regardless of age, race, gender, income level, or where one lives," Joe Martin, executive director of the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, said in a statement. No equivalent statistics are available for last year in New Jersey.
Martin estimated that opioid overdose-related admissions cost $27 million last year.
Philadelphia had the highest admission rate in the state, 47 per 100,000 residents. But rates in several other counties, from suburban Delaware to rural Beaver, also topped 40.
Joseph D'Orazio is an emergency medicine physician at Temple University Hospital and its sibling Episcopal campus, which is close to the river wards that are the epicenter of Philadelphia's heroin activity. He said patients have been arriving in better shape than in the past because they're more likely to have been given the emergency overdose reversal drug naloxone by other users, paramedics, or the police.
D'Orazio estimated that only about one in every 10 patients brought to the emergency department after an overdose would be admitted. Many refuse to go to the hospital.
An opioid overdose — a suppression of the brain's breathing response — is not life-threatening as long as it is reversed extremely quickly.
"If your brain is not getting oxygen, parts of it are dying," along with parts of the heart, lungs, and kidneys, D'Orazio said. When organ damage occurs, patients must be admitted for treatment.
"Most of that can be turned around in the next couple days," with oxygen, fluids, and other medical care, D'Orazio said. But the longer a patient doesn't breathe, the more serious the brain damage.
Brain cells begin dying almost immediately after breathing stops. Damage may be irreversible after about 10 minutes without oxygen, and recovery is virtually impossible after 15 minutes. Administering CPR during that time, however, can maintain a flow of oxygen.