Drug Overdose: All One Needs To Know About Overdosing on Drugs

Last Updated: January 21, 2021

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Overdose definition (or OD) is an intentional or accidental consumption of illicit or prescription drugs over the amount that the body can absorb. This may happen suddenly as the drugs take effect immediately or over some period as repeated use. When an OD occurs, the drug’s side effects take on a catastrophically increased potency and can lead to a bad trip, long-term health complications or even death. Other effects may manifest if the drug was used within the recommended dosage. The symptoms vary depending on the type of drug that has been consumed, but there are ways to counteract cases of drug overdose if it’s not too late.

What is The Mechanism of Overdosing On Drugs?

Illegal drugs and prescription medication affect the central nervous system. Depending on the drug, the central nervous system may be sped up (stimulated) or slowed down (depressed). When such drugs are taken in moderation or according to a doctor’s recommendation, a measure of control of the nervous system is surrendered to the drug.

Different kinds of scenarios involving different kinds of drugs/substances can lead to an accidental drug overdose. These Various Scenarios are Described Below:

Depressant Overdose

Depressants such as alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system. Hence, they tend to lower body temperature and blood pressure, and they also slow down breathing and heart rate. The result of these actions on the system is usually a sedative effect that helps the user to experience a reduced amount of anxiety and a deep sense of calm. However, depressants can be dangerous when used in doses higher than recommended as the effects will be too much for the system to bear. This can lead to symptoms such as coma, respiratory failure, or even death.

Opioid Overdose

Everyone has opioid receptors in various parts of the system – the central and peripheral nervous systems, the brain, and the gastrointestinal tracts. The ingestion of opioids activates these receptors and slows the body down.

Hence, an overdose on opioids may slow the body down too much up to the point where organs begin to shut down as the system fails to perform its regular functions. The severity and quickness of the appearance of opioid overdose symptoms vary according to the strength of the opioid used.

opioid pills spilled from the bottle.

Alcohol Overdose

Generally, there is a limit to the amount of alcohol that the body can process at a time (one unit per hour). While long term consumption of the substance at even reduced levels takes its toll on the system, short term consumption of large amounts presents a much more dangerous proposition for the body to deal with.

Any amount of alcohol that is more than the body can process makes it hard for the system to metabolize the substance, leading to a build-up of alcohol throughout the body. This situation is known as alcohol poisoning, and some of the most common symptoms are vomiting, hypothermia, irregular breathing, and seizures. The risk and severity of these alcohol overdose symptoms can increase significantly with factors such as age and existing medical conditions.

Stimulant Overdose

The mechanism of action of stimulants, much like opioids, also deals with the central nervous system. However, unlike opioids, stimulants such as cocaine and meth increase blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature. When one overdoses on a stimulant, it causes the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and blood circulation to be overworked and to break down.

Symptoms that may appear if this happens are usually severe. They include irregular breathing, cardiac arrest, chest pain, seizures/convulsions, jerking/rigid limbs, loss of consciousness, severe headaches, etc.

What are the Risk Factors?

As suggested earlier on, certain factors can affect the chances of a person overdosing on any type of drug. These Risk Factors Include:

  • Mental Health Problems: If a person has a history of mental health issues or an existing mental health issue, certain substances will be more susceptible to overdose, especially if the symptoms of the mental health issue have not been addressed appropriately.
  • History of Addiction: If an individual already has a history of drug addiction, the person is more likely to experience an overdose. This is because there is an increased chance of using prescription medication or other illicit drugs, and if an addiction forms from using these, an overdose is always a possibility.
  • Misuse of Dosage Instructions: lack of sufficient knowledge or deliberate abuse of the dosage instructions provided for a drug can make a person prone to an overdose. It might be unintentional, but it will be just as dangerous as an overdose in any other scenario.
  • Improper Storage: storing drugs in a place where minors can easily access them poses a danger of accidental drug overdose. Children tend to pick things up and just swallow/munch without thinking, so it is important to pay attention to where drugs are stored when living with/around people that are not perceptive about these things.
Senior man alone sitting on sofa reading instructiion.

Can An Overdose Lead To Death?

Yes, a drug/substance overdose can lead to death in some cases. However, this can be prevented if the OD is not extreme, and medical attention is provided immediately. The risk of death from an accidental drug overdose is also affected by factors such as the health status of the individual, age, and the substance that has been overdosed on.

Overdose Statistics

Overdose-related deaths have been a problem for a long time, and it seems to get worse every year.

Here are Some of the Alarming Statistics:

  • 2014 marked the worst year with the most recorded overdose-related deaths.
  • More than 60% of OD cases involve an opioid.
  • Almost 80 people in America die every day from an opioid overdose.
  • From 1999 to date, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. has gone up by 400%.
  • Almost directly correlating to the number of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. over the last 15 years, the number of related deaths has also quadrupled.
  • Every day, there are over 1000 emergency cases of prescription opioids misuse.
  • An intentional drug/substance OD is a common form of suicide, and according to the WHO, over a million people take their own lives every year.
  • Prescription opioids were involved in 32% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2018. That percentage dropped by 13.5% from 2017.
  • Overdose deaths involving heroin rose from 1,960 in 1999 to 15,469 in 2016 and then 14,996 in 2018.
  • In 2018, 67,367 overdose-related deaths occurred in the United States.

How Many Overdoses Are Caused By Prescription Drugs Compared To Illegal Drugs?

In 2018, 14,975 people died from prescription opioid-related overdoses, compared to 14,996 for heroin, 14,666 for psychostimulants (including cocaine), and 10,734 for benzodiazepines.

Based on Available Statistics:

  • 2.3 million teens admitted to taking a stimulant prescription drug, such as Ritalin, in 2005.
  • 4.4 million teens admitted to taking prescription painkillers, such as Opioids
  • 2.2 million teens admitted to abusing an over the counter medication, such as cough syrup
  • Depressants, opioids, and antidepressants cause up to 45% of overdose deaths in the US each year. That’s more than the combined total of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
  • 27.2 percent of high school students admit to having used illicit drugs in 2014. By their senior year, 21% of teens report having used marijuana.

What Are Possible Overdose Symptoms?

There are different OD symptoms, depending on the drug that has been used. These symptoms can also be broadly divided on whether the drug is a stimulant or a depressant:

  • Symptoms for stimulants may include vomiting, convulsions, hallucinations, etc.
  • Symptoms for depressant drugs may include difficulty in breathing, coma, impaired coordination, etc.
Sick senior with drug overose seizures.

Depending on the drug, OD symptoms either speed up or slow down the central nervous system to a dangerous rate. Drugs that are stimulants will cause hyperventilation, a rapid heart rate, and even heart attack or stroke. OD symptoms in cases of polysubstance abuse are the hardest to distinguish.

Here are Some of the Specific Signs of Overdose on These Drugs:

  • Heroin overdose symptoms: During a heroin or other opioids overdose, the user’s breathing will slow down, and the body temperature will drop. Convulsions, vomiting, foamy mouth, and bluing of the fingertips and toes may occur.
  • Cocaine overdose symptoms: The severity of cocaine overdose depends on the type of cocaine (whether it is crack cocaine, which is absorbed faster) or the ways of administration. Milder symptoms may be seizures, nausea, arrhythmia, hyperventilation, and the more serious symptoms may be a heart attack, stroke, and respiratory failure.
  • Methamphetamine OD symptoms: due to the mechanism with which methamphetamines work, there may be a delayed reaction in overdose cases. An overdose might not be immediately noticeable because it makes overdosing on methamphetamines even more dangerous. Symptoms may include a rapid heart rate, hyperventilation, fever, and even stroke or a heart attack.
  • Hallucinogens Overdose Symptoms: symptoms include coma, stroke, memory loss, seizures, rapid breathing, dilated pupils, hypothermia, respiratory failure, etc.
  • Marijuana OD Symptoms: symptoms include hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, high/low blood pressure, poor coordination, increased heart rate, etc.
  • Ecstasy Overdose Symptoms: signs of OD include loss of consciousness, high blood pressure, seizures, fainting, panic attacks, etc.

How to Respond To A Drug/Substance Overdose

In the case of OD, it is critical to call 911 as soon as possible! In situations where the overdose is opioid-related, administering naloxone may help, but only if the person administering help is knowledgeable about the right doses to offer. Regardless, it is crucial to get professional medical help as soon as possible.

emergency doctors save woman from od.

While Waiting for the Ambulance:

  • Stay with the person throughout and continue speaking to assure them that they are not alone
  • Try to remain calm
  • Do NOT put anything in the patient’s mouth if unconscious
  • Be sure that nothing around the patient can hurt them, especially if a seizure is one of the symptoms
  • Do NOT restrain the patient

Drug Overdose Treatment

People respond differently to a substance OD, and as such, drug overdose treatment approaches vary on a person-by-person basis. However, there are still some fairly standard procedures such as therapy and the use of medication (in some cases) for drug overdose treatment. This will only be done after a full assessment of the situation has been conducted. The assessment will typically involve blood tests, observation, and psychological review.

Medications For Treating Overdose-Related Problems

Depending on the drug that has been overdosed on, there are several medications that have proved effective in reversing the effects of the overdosed drug, provided they are administered when it is not yet too late.

Narcan (naloxone) is effective against a lot of opioid overdoses. It can be sprayed through the nose of the patient or injected intravenously. Naloxone is effective against drugs like heroin, morphine, oxycodone, methadone, fentanyl, codeine, buprenorphine, etc.

Other Medications That are Used in the Management/Treatment of Drug Overdose Include:

Self-Care After Overdose

After receiving treatment, it is crucial to take a step back and review the entire situation. Identify the causes of the habit and the triggers that can cause a relapse. Next, one needs to be strong enough to admit that there is a problem that still needs a solution, and this solution can only be achieved with the right form of therapy in a rehabilitation center. Look for one that suits your needs and persist with the recovery process. In all of this, be sure to avoid the triggers and be surrounded by friends and loved ones.

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Page Sources

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  2. Rose A. Rudd, Noah Aleshire, Jon E. Zibbell, R. Matthew Gladden. Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths — the United States, 2000–2014. 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6450a3.htm?s_cid=mm6450a3_w
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Drug Overdose Epidemic: Behind the Numbers. 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Overdose Death Rates. 2020. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid Overdose: Prescription Opioid Data. 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
  6. World Health Organization. Mental Health and Substance Use: Suicide Data. https://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/
  7. BMJ. Deaths from drug overdose and suicide outstrip those from diabetes in the US. https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/deaths-from-drug-overdose-and-suicide-outstrip-those-from-diabetes-in-us/
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid Overdose: Drug Overdose Deaths. 2020 https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html
  9. Svetla Slavova, Daniella Bradley O'Brien, Kathleen Creepage, Dan Dao, Anna Fondario, Elizabeth Haile, Beth Hume, Thomas W. Largo, Claire Nguyen, Jennifer C. Sabel, Dagan Wright, Members of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Overdose Subcommittee. Drug Overdose Deaths: Let's Get Specific. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4547584/
  10. Science Direct. Drug Overdose. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/drug-overdose

Published on: August 16th, 2016

Updated on: January 21st, 2021

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.