Many people die of opioid overdose because there is no one around to notice they are in trouble. A new smartphone app was designed to address this problem and may hopefully save many lives.

The still experimental app called "Second Chance" measures breathing to detect early signs of overdose in the crucial minutes after people injected heroin and other illicit drugs. The app can then summon for help if breathing slows down or stops.

Deaths From Opioid Overdose

The opioid antidote Naloxone can save victims of drug overdose if it is administered on time, but thousands continue to die each year. In 2017 alone, there were more than 47,000 people in the United States who died as a result of opioid overdose.

Deaths often occur when the illegal drugs suppressed the victims' breathing and no one is aware they were in trouble. Those who overdose are usually incapable to call for help during the emergency and thus miss getting the lifesaving treatment. A witness may increase the victims' odds for survival.

These settings prompted Jacob Sunshine, from the University of Washington, and colleagues to develop Second Chance. They think that the app can save thousands of lives.

"There's two known things: What overdose looks like — the respiratory physiology of it — it's all known. The treatment for it; it's all known. It's just connecting those two in a timely fashion that is needed, and that's the missing link that this tech is trying to solve," said Sunshine.

Saving Drug Addicts With A Smartphone App

The app works by converting the smartphone into a sonar device using the built-in speaker and microphone. An algorithm analyzes the reflected sound waves to identify if a person is not moving, or the breathing has slowed or stopped, which could indicate than an overdose happened.

If the app detects decreased breathing or no breathing at all, it will send an alarm to ask the person to interact with it. If no interaction occurs, the app will contact emergency services or a trusted relative or friend who has access and can administer naloxone.

"Given the reliable reversibility of acute opioid toxicity, smartphone-enabled overdose detection coupled with the ability to alert naloxone-equipped friends and family or emergency medical services (EMS) could hold potential as a low-barrier, harm reduction intervention," the researchers wrote.

Sunshine and colleagues described the app in a study published in Science Translational Medicine on Jan. 9.

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