A 22-year-old man with no significant medical history is transferred from the airport to the emergency department (ED) in a semiconscious state after returning from a 3-week vacation in a malarial zone. According to one of his traveling companions, the patient was at his baseline mental status when boarding the plane for the return trip home. He ate lunch and then took a nap.
After landing, the patient's companion was unable to wake the patient. The companion then called for help, and the patient was rushed to the ED. His other traveling companions, who were also on the same flight, are all asymptomatic.
Physical Examination and Work-up
The physical examination reveals a physically fit man who is obtunded and minimally arousable. Vital signs reveal an oral temperature of 98.7°F (37°C), pulse of 85 beats/min, blood pressure of 110/70 mm Hg, respiratory rate of 7 breaths/min, and an oxygen saturation of 98% while breathing room air. Diffuse flushing of the skin is noted, without lesions or bruising.
The patient's heart sounds are normal, without any murmurs, rubs, or gallops, and the lungs are clear to auscultation bilaterally. Examination of the head and neck is unremarkable, other than pinpoint pupils. The abdominal examination reveals normal bowel sounds without distention, tenderness to palpation, or organomegaly. Rectal examination shows normal rectal tone, heme-negative stool, and no masses.
The laboratory analysis includes a complete blood cell count (CBC) with differential, a complete metabolic panel, a coagulation profile, a fingerstick blood glucose measurement, and a urine analysis. The CBC reveals a normal white blood cell count without a left shift. The remainder of the laboratory analysis is within normal limits, including a creatinine level of 1.2 mg/dL, glucose of 90 mg/dL, prothrombin time of 12.1 seconds, and a partial thromboplastin time of 28.5 seconds.
The urinalysis is negative for bacteria and has a specific gravity of 1.010. It is noted in the patient's past medical record that he had a negative HIV test approximately 4 months ago.
The plain abdominal radiograph demonstrated heroin-filled condoms in the stomach, small intestine, colon, and rectum. Presumably, the patient swallowed the condoms and one of them ruptured during the flight, thereby causing the patient's drowsiness.
“Body packing” refers to individuals who swallow or pack body orifices with drugs to transport them across borders. Often, this involves the use of rubber or condoms to prevent the packets from rupturing. “Body stuffing” is a term used to describe when an individual swallows drugs in an attempt to avoid prosecution by the police.
The first reported case of body packing was in 1973, when a body packer had developed a small-bowel obstruction nearly 2 weeks after swallowing a condom filled with hashish. The patient underwent surgical removal. Cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine ("ecstasy"), marijuana, and hashish are the drugs that are usually smuggled in this manner.
Body packers usually carry about 2.2 lb (1 kg) of drugs, divided into 50-100 packets of 0.29-0.35 oz (8-10 g) each; however, persons carrying more than 200 packets have been reported. The packets are usually well-designed and constructed, possibly with the help of machines, so as to make them resistant to rupture. The drug is first packed into a balloon or condom, followed by additional layers of latex and, finally, sealed with wax. If a packet ruptures, however, it releases a high dose of drug into the gastrointestinal tract that can lead to drastic consequences. The acute drug intoxication that can result is associated with high mortality rates.
Body packing should be suspected in anyone exhibiting signs of drug-induced toxic effects after a recent arrival on an international flight, or when there is no history of recreational drug use. When a suspected body packer presents to a physician, a detailed history should be obtained, followed by a thorough physical examination. Information should be gathered on the type of drug, the number of packets, the nature of the wrapping, and the presence of any gastrointestinal symptoms.
Assessment of vital signs, mental status, pupil size, bowel sounds, and skin findings can provide useful clues to the nature of the drug. Gentle rectal and vaginal examination should be carried out to disclose the possible presence of packets.
Imaging studies should begin with plain radiographs of the abdomen and pelvis; these have a sensitivity of 85%-90%. The packets are visualized as multiple round or oval, well-defined, radioopaque objects along the distribution of the intestine. Three different forms of radioopacity have been described, depending on the contents of the packet and purity of the drug: Hashish appears denser than stool; cocaine appears similar to stool; and heroin has a gaseous transparence. Owing to their method of construction, some types of cocaine packets may exhibit a small radiolucent band around them.
Barium and CT studies of the abdomen can be ordered for suspicious cases. Contrast-enhanced CT of the abdomen and pelvis is more sensitive than plain radiography and reveals the presence of foreign bodies surrounded by a small amount of gas. Barium studies identify the packets as filling defects within the contrast medium. Urinary toxicology tests are often performed because body packers do not usually provide precise information about the contents of the packets. Positive urine toxicology results were obtained in up to 78% of patients in one study. However, many toxicologists now have significant questions about the clinical use of these studies due to the rate of false-positives.
Treatment is tailored to the nature of the presentation and the severity of the toxidrome. Asymptomatic body packers may be managed conservatively in an intensive care unit (ICU) while waiting for spontaneous evacuation. Medical treatment is mandated in the event of drug-induced toxic effects and in cases presenting with intestinal obstruction or perforation.
For intoxication cases, initial management includes careful attention to the airway, breathing, and circulation (ABCs) and adequate resuscitation measures. Further management is based on the nature of the drug and toxidrome. Opioid poisoning is treated with naloxone. High doses may be necessary because large doses of drug may be released upon gastrointestinal rupture of the packets. Acute lung injury caused by opioid poisoning is treated with supplemental oxygen or intubation as needed.
For cocaine poisoning, treatment should be initiated with high doses of benzodiazepines followed by intensive care management. Ventricular arrhythmia should be managed with lidocaine and hypertonic sodium bicarbonate, and cocaine-induced hypertension should be treated with intravenous sodium nitroprusside or phentolamine. In cases of leaking cocaine packets, immediate surgical removal is indicated because no specific antidote is available for cocaine overdose.
Management of amphetamine poisoning is similar to that of cocaine poisoning, including prompt surgical removal of leaking packets. Cannabis intoxication is managed with supportive treatment.
In the case of bowel obstruction, activated charcoal can be given for cocaine packers at a dose of 1 g per kg of body weight (up to 50 g) every 4 hours for several doses. Oil-based laxatives should be avoided; however, whole-bowel irrigation with polyethylene glycol electrolyte lavage solution can be attempted to aid gentle passage of the packets. Ipecac syrup, enemas, and cathartics carry a possibility of packet rupture and must not be used. Endoscopic retrieval of packets also entails risk for rupture; therefore, this method is not usually recommended unless carried out in an ICU or operating room.[2,3] Imaging is to be repeated until three packet-negative stools are obtained or according to the count given by the packer to confirm that no packet is left behind.
Prompt surgical management is indicated for packers who present with complications of intestinal obstruction or perforation. Enterotomy incisions are made as required, and the intestinal contents are milked toward the incisions or the anus. Postoperative imaging (CT or barium study) should be done to ensure the complete removal of packets.
In this case, the patient was administered naloxone and was prepared for surgery. Evidence of packet rupture was found, and the packets were successfully removed. The patient survived the surgery and recovered well.
Cases of body packing have been increasing recently because strict border security procedures have made conventional drug smuggling difficult. Physicians and radiologists should therefore be aware of this potentially fatal form of drug smuggling, its various presentations, and the relevant imaging findings in order to make a prompt diagnosis and begin the appropriate management.
Opioid poisoning is treated with naloxone. Very high doses may be necessary because large doses of drug may be released upon gastrointestinal rupture of the packets.
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- Traub SJ, Hoffman RS, Nelson LS. Body packing--the internal concealment of illicit drugs. N Engl J Med. 2003;349:2519-2526. Source
- Pidoto RR, Agliata AM, Bertoline R, Mainini A, Rossi G, Giani G. A new method of packaging cocaine for international traffic and implications for the management of cocaine body-packers. J Emerg Med. 2002;23:149-153. Source
- Hergan K, Kofler K, Oser W. Drug smuggling by body packing: what radiologists should know about it. Eur Radiol. 2004;14:736-742. Source
- Dueñas-Laita A, Nogué S, Burillo-Putze G. Body packing. N Engl J Med. 2004;350:1260-1261. Source
- Cappelletti S, Picacentino D, Ciallella C. Systemic Review of Drug Packaging Methods in Body Packing and Pushing: A Need for New Classification. Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2019 Mar; 40(1):27-42. Source
Case Study from Medscape, January 2024