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Drug Overdose −Signs, Health Risks and What to Do in an Emergency

The term “drug epidemic” raises two major reactions: fear and skepticism. The former comes from the well-known health risks associated with substance abuse, while the latter arises from a perception that drug dependency is not a significant healthcare concern.

Yet, figures challenge the latter position as drug overdose deaths increased by approximately 30% from 2019 to 2020 in the United States, closing the year 2021 with 106,699 deaths. The alarming rise in illicit drugs and prescription drug misuse encourages healthcare professionals and the community to take informed action to save lives.

Read on to learn about control prevention for drug abuse overdoses and what to do in drug-related emergencies.

Overdose Definition

A drug is a substance that alters the functioning of the body and mind when consumed. Drugs can be classified into various categories based on their effects, chemical composition and legal status.

Drugs can be classified as:

  • Prescription (antibiotics, pain relievers, antidepressants) used under the direction of healthcare providers
  • Over-the-counter (antacids, cold allergy medications) available without a prescription in pharmacies
  • Recreational (alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, hallucinogens) often used for non-medical purposes
  • Illegal (heroin, methamphetamine, synthetic drugs) strictly prohibited due to their high potential for abuse

A drug overdose occurs when one of these drugs is consumed in a larger amount than the body can safely metabolize, leading to a range of symptoms, from mild to severe, depending on the substance and the amount ingested.

In severe cases, an overdose can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

Drug Overdose Symptoms

Overdose symptoms can significantly vary depending on the drug type and individual factors. The chart below summarizes the most common symptoms of an overdose depending on the drug:

Drug Category Example Drugs Symptoms of Overdose
Opioids Heroin, Fentanyl, Morphine, Oxycodone Pinpoint pupils, slow or shallow breathing, respiratory depression, blue lips or fingertips, loss of consciousness, coma, clammy skin, weak pulse, nausea vomiting
Stimulants Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Adderall High heart rate, high blood pressure, dilated pupils, agitation, paranoia, hallucinations, tremors, seizures, hyperthermia, cardiac arrest
Prescription Drugs Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax), Opioid painkillers (e.g., Oxycodone) Sedation, confusion, respiratory depression, slurred speech, dizziness, muscle weakness, coma, hypotension
Hallucinogens LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms) Hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, rapid heart rate, hypertension, seizures, hyperthermia, panic attacks
Depressants Alcohol, Barbiturates Slurred speech, impaired coordination, confusion, drowsiness, respiratory depression, coma, hypotension, hypothermia, cardiac arrest
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) Liver damage (acetaminophen), gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney damage, rapid heart rate, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, seizures

Causes of a Drug Overdose

Overdoses can occur due to a multitude of factors, and understanding these underlying causes will help everyone involved properly address the event and implement effective treatment and prevention strategies.

Reasons why overdoses may occur are:

Misuse or Abuse

The most obvious reason for an overdose is when someone takes medications or substances in higher doses or more frequently than prescribed or intended. This dosage change can be intentional to inflict self-harm or accidental.

Tolerance

Over time, individuals using prescription or illicit drugs may develop tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired recreational or therapeutic effect. Any change in the dosage of prescription drugs should be done under strict medical supervision.

Polydrug Use

In the U.S., marijuana and alcohol remain the most prominent polydrug combination, with over 85% of all people who use both substances. This mix can be dangerous as both are depressant drugs and their effects can suppress, impair and inhibit the brain’s ability to function as it should.

Unintentional Overdose

As life can be hectic sometimes, people under medication may accidentally take too much of their medication, whether due to confusion, forgetfulness, rushes or misreading labels.

Contaminated and Adulterated Drugs

Adulterants may be added to a variety of street drugs to increase the perceived quantity or to enhance the drug effects. Street drugs may also be contaminated with manufacturing by-products such as glass and metals—including lead and aluminum.

Underlying Physical and Mental Health Conditions

Individuals with health conditions such as respiratory disorders can be in danger of worsening respiratory depression from opioid use. Those with mental health disorders like depression or anxiety, who may self-medicate as a coping mechanism, are at higher risk of drug overdose.

Relapse

Relapsing is a common aspect of recovery, but certain drugs can pose a significant danger, even leading to fatality.

If individuals ingest the same quantity of the drug as they did before quitting, they face an increased risk of overdose, as their bodies no longer tolerate previous levels of drug exposure.

Drug Overdose First Aid

In the case of a suspected overdose, it’s crucial to act quickly. Here’s what to do:

  1. To seek professional medical help, dial your local emergency number immediately (e.g., 911 in the United States).
  2. Clearly state that it is a suspected overdose. Provide information about the type of substance involved.
  3. Stay with the affected person to monitor their condition and provide any necessary information to emergency responders.
  4. Do NOT attempt to induce vomiting unless specifically instructed to do so by emergency personnel.
  5. If the person is unconscious and not breathing and you know CPR, do it until emergency help arrives.
  6. If possible, gather the drug containers and provide them to emergency responders.
  7. If the person is conscious, try to keep them awake and responsive.
  8. Stay calm and follow any instructions given by emergency services.

Are Drug Overdoses Fatal?

Yes, some overdose cases can be fatal; others will cause a “bad trip.”

Outcomes depend on the type of drug, dosage and access to medical assistance. For example, sedative overdoses may lead to coma and death without prompt emergency service intervention. Call 911 as soon as you can.

Drug Overdose − Aftermath Self-Care and Key Takeaways

Prompt administration of specific reversal medications can significantly improve the outcomes of an overdose.

Naloxone effectively counteracts opioid overdoses caused by heroin, morphine and other similar drugs. In some instances, healthcare professionals may also use activated charcoal to bind and remove unabsorbed toxins from the stomach, reducing their entry into the bloodstream.

Lorazepam, midazolam and diazepam may also be useful for management and treatment. A careful review to identify triggers and build a personalized rehabilitation plan should be done for sustained recovery. Addiction centers offer therapy and support to overcome dependence and achieve a drug-free life.

People Also Ask

What if you accidentally take your meds twice?

If you accidentally take your medication twice, immediately consult a healthcare professional or poison control center for guidance on managing potential side effects or complications. Do not induce vomiting nor attempt to adjust dosage without medical advice.

What do I need to know about overdosing?

Overdosing on medication can lead to serious health risks. Recognize symptoms such as dizziness, nausea or rapid heartbeat, and seek immediate medical attention. Never exceed prescribed doses and store medications securely to prevent accidental ingestion.

What is the best thing to do if you overdose?

If you overdose, immediately call emergency services or poison control. Provide information on the substance ingested and follow their instructions carefully. Do not induce vomiting unless instructed by a medical professional.

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Page Sources

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  2. Drug overdose deaths | Drug overdose | CDC Injury Center. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/index.html
  3. Drug Basics | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/basics/
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  6. Peck, Y., Clough, A. R., Culshaw, P. N., & Liddell, M. J. (2019). Multi-drug cocktails: Impurities in commonly used illicit drugs seized by police in Queensland, Australia. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 201, 49–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2019.03.019
  7. Treatment and Recovery | National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2023c, September 25). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery (Note: This link is repeated in the list and has been included only once.)
Retrieved on April 11, 2024.

Published on: August 16th, 2016

Updated on: April 11th, 2024

María José Petit-Rodríguez

About Author

María José Petit-Rodríguez

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Alison Tarlow, Certified Addictions Professional (C.A.P.)

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