Hypoventilation, or respiratory depression, refers to slow, shallow, and ineffective breathing.
There are many causes of respiratory depression, one of them being drug use. Many medications, if misused or abused, can lead to respiratory depression. Without treatment, this condition can become life-threatening and cause permanent damage. If you’re wondering what drugs cause respiratory depression, we’ve put together a list for you.
What Is Respiratory Depression?
Respiratory depression is a breathing disorder characterized by slow and shallow breathing. During a normal breathing cycle, you inhale oxygen into your lungs, which is carried throughout your body by your blood.
Your blood then takes the carbon dioxide and pushes it back into your lungs so you can exhale and release it. When a person is experiencing respiratory depression or hypoventilation, this process is interrupted. They can’t get enough oxygen into their lungs, disrupting the cycle and preventing them from releasing carbon dioxide.
Normally, breathing rates in people with respiratory depression slow down to 8 to 10 breaths per minute, a significant difference from the normal 12 to 16 breaths per minute. This can lead to poor use of oxygen by the lungs, as well as a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body, which can be dangerous.
Some signs of respiratory depression include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Fluctuations in blood pressure
- Abnormal breathing sounds, such as a whistling or crackling sound
- Apnea (abnormally long pauses in between breaths followed by a long sigh)
- Bluish or grayish skin
- Rapid heart rate
If a person does not receive respiratory depression treatment in time, they may experience life-threatening side effects like:
If you notice any signs of respiratory depression in yourself or a loved one, call 9-1-1 immediately. Without proper medical assistance, the situation can quickly become a matter of life and death.
Drugs That Cause Respiratory Depression
The most common cause of respiratory depression is taking high doses of drugs or drug overdose. Certain drugs can cause respiratory depression when you take doses higher than recommended by your doctor or if they're mixed with other substances.
The most common types of drugs that cause respiratory depression are depressants or substances that have a depressing or sedative effect on the brain and spinal cord.
Respiratory depressant drugs include:
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan)
- Barbiturates (phenobarbital, secobarbital, amobarbital, and pentobarbital)
- Narcotics or opioids (morphine, Vicodin, OxyContin, fentanyl)
- Illicit drugs (heroin, GHB, desomorphine)
- Sleeping pills like Ambien and Ultram
Among the different drugs that can cause respiratory depression, opioids are the most common culprits. People who abuse opioids may experience depressed breathing if they take dangerously high doses or mix them with other depressants, like alcohol.
Opioid-induced respiratory depression is also a sign of overdose, as well as the leading cause of opioid overdose brain damage and death. Those with opioid addictions should seek out opioid detox and addiction treatment as soon as possible so they can treat their existing physical ailments and avoid life-threatening complications like respiratory depression.
Why Can Drugs Cause Respiratory Depression?
Depressants like alcohol and opioids can cause respiratory depression because they slow nerve activity in the brain, which also slows down basic functions like heart rate and breathing. Breathing is an involuntary action controlled by the brain region called the medulla, which is located where the brain meets the spinal cord. In addition to breathing, it controls functions like heart rhythm, blood flow, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
This particular region of the brain is highly sensitive to the effects of opioids and stimulants like cocaine and amphetamines. When a person takes high doses of these drugs, it overwhelms the central nervous system and brain regions like the medulla, impairing breathing and other important functions.
Substance Abuse Treatment
Respiratory depression and overdose can occur in anyone. Sometimes, people who take their medications regularly may overdose unintentionally if they accidentally mix their medications or drink alcohol with medications still in their system.
However, overdose is a more serious threat to those who abuse opioids and other similar drugs. Not only can overdose occur, but the brain also changes with continued drug use, resulting in addiction.
Addiction poses not only threats to your health but also your relationships, career, finances, and more. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, don’t wait to hit rock bottom to get help.
Banyan Treatment Centers Heartland offers inpatient substance abuse treatment in Illinois for people with all kinds of substance use disorders. Our levels of care also include medically assisted detox, therapy, counseling, and other treatment options to ensure our patients’ needs are met.
Our Heartland drug rehab even offers telehealth for addiction to provide patients an additional option for those who wish to receive treatment remotely or for anyone who is particularly cautious in light of the pandemic.