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Discharge of patients who have taken an overdose of opioids
  1. Simon Clarke, Specialist Registrar,
  2. Paul Dargan, Specialist Registrar
  1. Department of Emergency Medicine, Manchester Royal Infirmary, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9WL, UK;
  1. kevin.mackway-jones{at}


A short cut review was carried out to establish whether patients with no recurrence of symptoms one hour after receiving naloxone for an opioid overdose can safely be discharged. Altogether 195 papers were found using the reported search, of which five presented the best evidence to answer the clinical question. The author, date and country of publication, patient group studied, study type, relevant outcomes, results and study weaknesses of these best papers are tabulated. A clinical bottom line is stated.

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Report by Simon Clarke,Specialist RegistrarChecked by Paul Dargan, Specialist Registrar

Clinical scenario

A 30 year old opioid addict is brought to the emergency department having overdosed on heroin. He is successfully treated with a titrated bolus of naloxone. You wonder when it will be safe to discharge the patient.

Three part question

In [patients given naloxone for the treatment of opioid overdose] is [a lack of recurrence of symptoms after one hour] a sensitive predictor for [safe discharge from the department]?

Search strategy

Medline 1966–09/01 using the OVID interface. [{exp narcotics OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR OR} AND {exp overdose OR overdos$.mp OR exp poisons OR poison$.mp OR “acute intoxic$”.mp OR “acute toxic$”.mp} AND {exp patient admission OR OR exp patient discharge OR OR observ$.mp OR monitor$.mp OR predict$.mp}] LIMIT to human AND English.

Search outcome

Altogether 194 papers found. Of these only five were relevant to the preoperative setting (table 5).

Table 5


The evidence consists of observational studies, three of which are retrospective reviews of medical records and thus there are concerns regarding the reliability of the data collected. In addition, only Christenson's study attempts to apply a “rule out” strategy by attempting to identify the clinical variables that predict a low risk of delayed complications from the opioid overdose. Further work is required to validate the rule in different populations by further prospective studies. Also, comparative trials need to be undertaken to assess the validity of the rule for different opioid overdoses.


The evidence suggests that if a patient remains well one hour after administration of naloxone, then it is safe to discharge them.

Report by Simon Clarke,Specialist RegistrarChecked by Paul Dargan, Specialist Registrar