Improving medical students

Med Student’s Drug Guide – Part 2

Posted by medliorator on December 23, 2007

SDN’s Alison Hayward, M.D. and Sarah M. Lawrence present a concise guide to narcotics:

marketed by Bayer from 1898-1910 as a cough syrup and as a cure for morphine addiction, until the public discovered that heroin is merely an acetylated form of morphine which is not only converted to morphine as it is metabolized in the liver, but also is approximately twice as potent. Heroin is well-known as a highly addictive substance which can cause withdrawal symptoms after just a few days of use. Its classic effects include CNS/respiratory depression and miosis (pinpoint pupils). Withdrawal from heroin, referred to by patients as being “dope sick”, results in numerous unpleasant symptoms such as malaise, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramping and aches. You may note that your patients also begin yawning as they go into withdrawal. Withdrawal can be abruptly precipitated by the use of naloxone (Narcan), an opiate antagonist. This can have the unfortunate effect of causing the patient to go from a comatose state to an agitated, “dope sick” state which can be followed by the patient’s rapid departure against medical advice to seek more heroin. For this reason it is advisable to titrate naloxone by using small doses. It is important to note that however unhappy those in heroin withdrawal may be, withdrawal from heroin cannot kill you. Heroin is most commonly injected IV but can also be snorted or injected subcutaneously. Heroin plus cocaine injected IV is known as a ’speedball’.


a dissociative anesthetic… used in veterinary and human medicine. Classified as an NMDA receptor antagonist, ketamine induces a state known as dissociative anesthesia, in which signals from the conscious mind to other parts of the brain are blocked. Ketamine is primarily used in the induction and maintenance of general anesthesia, usually in combination with a sedative. Because it produces less respiratory depression than other anesthetics, Ketamine is useful in children and in emergency department patients with unknown medical histories. Besides its legitimate medical uses, Ketamine, or “Special K” is often used illicitly. Symptoms of Ketamine intoxication include sedation, hallucinations, a sense of bodily detachment, sensory distortions and unintelligible speech. No antidote exists and treatment is supportive.


phencyclidine is a dissociative hallucinogen that can be used either in crystalline or liquid form. In the liquid form, cigarettes or joints my be dipped in PCP then smoked. Its best known street name (though it has many) is “angel dust”. On a typical exam question, a patient will present to the emergency room with tachycardia, agitation, and potentially nystagmus or ataxia. The hallmark of phencyclidine on an exam question is that the patient will be engaging in highly violent behavior. The drug can cause behavioral disturbances as well as decreased pain sensation, the combination of these two factors increase the risk for violence.


GHB is known on the street as Grievous Bodily Harm, Georgia Home Boy or Liquid Ecstasy. It is a clear liquid that resembles water but has a slightly salty taste. Banned in the United States, GHB is nonetheless available for purchase on the internet or imported from other countries. Often sold in small bottles, GHB can be mixed with water or combined with other beverages to conceal its flavor. The ability to slip this substance into the drink of an unsuspecting victim, along with its sedative and amnestic properties have implicated GHB as a drug used in facilitated sexual assault.
The classic signs of GHB intoxication are CNS and respiratory depression, but GHB also has effects on other organ systems. Symptoms may include nystagmus, ataxia, seizures, vomiting, somnolence and aggression. Extreme CNS depression is most commonly observed in patients presenting to the ED with GHB overdose, but this CNS depression may resolve suddenly due to rebound effects from the drug. A patient may go from completely unresponsive to agitated and combative in a very short time frame.


“benzos” are a class of prescription drugs with varying hypnotic, anxiolytic, sedative, anticonvulsant, amnestic and muscle relaxant properties. They are useful in the induction of anesthesia and the treatment of insomnia, anxiety, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms and alcohol withdrawal. Recreational users of stimulants may use benzos as a means of “coming down.”
Benzodiazepines exert their action at the GABA-A receptor in the CNS. Taken alone, benzodiazepines are considered very safe. When combined with other substances such as alcohol, serious or fatal CNS, respiratory or cardiovascular depression may occur. Symptoms of benzodiazepine intoxication include drowsiness, ataxia, confusion and vertigo.
Common benzodiazepines used in practice include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), midazolam (Versed) and temazepam (Restoril). Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) is a type of benzodiazepine that is available in Mexico and Latin America and imported illegally into the United States. Particularly insidious are its amnestic properties and its tasteless, odorless formulation. These characteristics make “roofies,” as they are popularly known, a frighteningly effective tool in drug-facilitated sexual assault. The danger of this drug contributed to its inclusion in the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996.


Drugs used for date rape such as Rohypnol and GHB can only be detected within a short time of ingestion on a drug screen, so if there is any question of their use, patients must be tested as soon as possible. Standard drug screens may not capture these chemicals; practitioners should make sure to specify the need to test for these drugs if their presence is suspected. This can be challenging as part of the drugs’ effectiveness is their ability to cloud the memory of their victims, leaving doubt about the events that transpired.

Raves, Rollin’, & Roofies: Your Guide to Club Drugs [Student Doctor Network]


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