Posts Tagged ‘injecting buprenorphine’

Complications of Intravenous Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) Abuse

Endophthalmitis from IV drug use

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since I started this blog, some of my readers have educated me about how frequently addicts use Suboxone and Subutex intravenously. I think some of these addicts have become blasé about the reality of complications that can occur from injecting a medication that’s not meant to be injected.

Like oral opioids, Suboxone and Subutex tablets and films aren’t sterile. Bacteria live everywhere, including inside an on oral medication. Since the medication is meant to be taken by mouth, these bacteria don’t harm the user when swallowed or used sublingually as intended. But when injected, these bacteria have the potential to cause catastrophic illness, depending on the nature of the bacteria.

Skin and bloodstream infections, endocarditis

Most commonly, we see cellulitis, a soft tissue infection, around the site of the injection. Sometimes the infection walls off and forms an abscess that usually must be drained. The infection can spread to the walls of the vein, causing angiitis. These infections can spread to the rest of the body, and can lodge in special areas that cause big problems. For example, endocarditis, an infection of one of the heart valves, occurs more commonly in IV drug users. It’s difficult to treat endocarditis, and requires lengthy antibiotic treatments. Sometimes this infection can destroy the heart valve and the patient may require surgical replacement of the valve. People can die from this serious infection.

Some of Singapore’s large population of intravenous heroin users switched to buprenorphine when it became available, but with that availability came an increase in complications from addicts who injected buprenorphine rather than use it as intended.

Researchers studied a series of one-hundred and thirty intravenous buprenorphine addicts that came to a Singapore hospital for treatment for infections. Of those, 31% had cellulitis. In nearly half of those patients, skin and blood cultures were positive for bacteria, most for Staph aureus. Twenty-four percent of the patients with skin infections eventually required surgical procedures, and the average length of stay in the hospital was eight days. (1)

A different study, also done in Singapore, looked at twelve consecutive patients admitted to the hospital with infective endocarditis from using buprenorphine intravenously. Eleven of the twelve patients had Staph aureus in their bloodstream, and five of them died. The average length of stay was 48 days, and multiple medical complications were noted. Three patients required open heart surgery. (2)

Fungal Endophthalmitis

Bacteria aren’t the only unwelcome travelers hitching a ride on a buprenorphine tablet. Fungal endophthalmitis is rare in people who have not had eye surgery, yet it is seen in intravenous addicts in general, and now specifically in addicts injecting sublingual tablets. At least four cases of endophthalmitis in intravenous users of buprenorphine tablets occurred within a year at one Australian hospital. These serious inner eye infections developed due to a type of Candida fungus usually found in the mouth. One of the patients admitted injecting a tablet that had been in her friend’s mouth for a short time, prior to diversion of the tablet to the patient. The oral candida species likely contaminated the buprenorphine tablet through this method.

In the 1980’s, a series of cases of candida endophthalmitis was seen in users of brown heroin. At that time, scientists thought the Candida came from lemon juice used to break down the heroin for injection. However, none of these four intravenous buprenorphine abusers used lemon juice. (3)

It is possible we will see more cases of fungal infections in patients who inject buprenorphine that has partially dissolved in another person’s mouth, due to the oral contamination of the pill.

Talc Granulomatosis

Tablets meant to be taken by mouth or sublingually (under the tongue) often contain talc as a filler. Heroin is sometimes cut with talc, to make more product to sell on the street. When these substances are injected, they can cause talc granulomatosis. Many addicts don’t get regular check-ups and most are reluctant to tell doctors about their IV drug use, even during serious medical problems. This condition is likely under-recognized because on the chest X-ray, talc granulomatosis looks like other interstitial lung diseases. The talc crystals lodge in the lungs, and cause an immunologic response. This in turn causes trouble breathing, dry cough, and low oxygen levels. Respiratory failure and death can occur in the worst cases, since there are no definite effective treatments. In some studies, patients with talc granulomatosis have improved when given corticosteroids, but tend to get worse again as soon as the medication is stopped.

Tablets meant to be used under the tongue aren’t sterile and aren’t suitable to be injected. Tablets diverted from patients who partially dissolve them in their mouths may be particularly hazardous due to contamination with mouth bacteria.  Addicts who inject tablets meant for orally use risk catastrophic health problems beyond overdose.

If you are an intravenous drug user, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re safe because you use new needles and “works” each time. New needles do reduce the risk of contracting hepatitis and HIV, but oral pills still contain substances that were never meant to be injected.

  1. Ho et al., “Cutaneous complications among i.v. buprenorphine users,” Journal of Dermatology, 2009, Jan;36(1) pp22-
  2. Chong et.al., “Infective Endocarditis due to intravenous Subutex abuse,” Singapore Medical Journal, 2009 Jan;50(1):34-42.
  3. Alboltins et. al., letter to the editor, Medical Journal of Australia, April 18, 2005, Vol 182(8) p.427.
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