According to statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60,000 deaths occurred due to drug overdoses in the United States in 2016. The annual number of drug overdoses in the country has increased significantly in recent years. The age-adjusted rate of deaths related to drug overdose increased by an average of 10 percent per year between 1999 and 2006 and by 3 percent annually between 2006 and 2014.
Between 2014 and 2016, the rate jumped by 18 percent annually. The use of illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription medications costs the United States more than $600 billion each year according to the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction treatment programs have been shown to reduce the costs to the nation far beyond what they cost to run.
Some of the fatalities and injuries might be avoided in the future if people knew what to do in case of overdose. For people who have loved ones who struggle with substance use disorder or addiction, or who are drug users themselves, it can be critical to know how to identify, react to and treat an overdose. This guide may help.
What Is a Drug Overdose?
Drug overdoses may happen accidentally or intentionally. They may involve over-the-counter medications, legal pharmaceuticals or illicit substances. Technically, an overdose occurs anytime a person uses more of a drug than is medically recommended, and some people can overdose even if they remain within the acceptable range of medical use depending on their sensitivity to the drug in question.
With regard to illicit drugs, overdose occurs when a person takes enough of the drug that his or her body cannot metabolize it properly. A drug overdose may occur gradually as when the drug accumulates in the person’s system over a period of use. Overdose may also happen suddenly if a large dose of a drug is taken all at once. This leads to unintended consequences of drug use. The specific unintended effects vary widely depending on the drug in question and the person using it.
Generally speaking, when a person overdoses, he or she might experience the therapeutic effects or the high of the drug more intensely than would be felt with appropriate use. At the same time, the person is likely to experience more pronounced side effects of drug use. The exact symptoms depend on the type of drug taken; some drugs will cause only minor effects even when a large overdose is taken, and other drugs might cause severe injury or even death if recommended dosages are exceeded at all.
The tolerance and physical characteristics of the person taking the drug also impact the effects that will be experienced. Some medications can be fatal to a young child at a single dose. If a person with asthma, a heart condition or another disease overdoses, the disease may be exacerbated by the overdose. Common overdose symptoms include:
- Problems with the person’s vital signs, including pulse rate, temperature, blood pressure, or rate of respiration: Vital indicators may be decreased, increased, or shut down altogether by an overdose.
- Cold, clammy, sweaty skin, or hot and dry skin
- Drowsiness and confusion: Drugs may impact the person’s ability to stay awake or alert. If the person cannot be roused from sleep, there is a danger that he or she could vomit and breathe liquid into the lungs.
- Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain: Cases involving vomiting blood or blood in stool may be life-threatening.
- Shortness of breath or changes in breathing: The person’s breathing might grow shallow, deep, slow or rapid.
- Chest pain: It may indicate that the heart or lungs have been damaged.
Depending on the specific drug, other organs of the body may be damaged.
A person who overdoses on stimulants may display different symptoms than a person who overdoses on depressants. In cases of amphetamine use, for example, the signs and symptoms of overdose include:
- Difficult or labored breathing
- Extreme headache
- Agitation and paranoia
- Disorientation and confusion
- Loss of consciousness
- High temperature
- Chest pain
Overdosing on amphetamines puts a person at increased risk for drug-induced psychosis, stroke, seizure and heart attack.
The category of depressants includes opioids, alcohol, benzodiazepines and other substances. These drugs act to slow the operation of the central nervous system, including lowering respiratory and heart rates. Depressant overdoses can lead to permanent brain damage or death. The signs and symptoms of depressant overdose include:
- Snoring or making gurgling sounds
- Bluing at the lips or fingertips
- Failure to respond to a stimulus
- Loss of consciousness
- Inability to wake
- Shallow or no breathing
It is important not to assume a person is asleep if they are not responsive. Drug overdoses may happen over time, and if you suspect someone has overdosed, it is a medical emergency.
Overdosing on a Mix of Drugs
Drug overdose becomes more likely for people who are taking different substances or different categories of substances at the same time. Most heroin overdose cases involve the taking of other depressants as well. Taking stimulants like amphetamines along with alcohol or other depressants can lead to unpredictable overdose symptoms.
Not all overdose cases will involve all of the symptoms listed above. It is not likely or necessary that a person will experience all of the possible symptoms of drug overdose. Exhibiting one or more of the symptoms might be enough, in context, to indicate that the person needs emergency medical attention.
Steps to Treat an Overdose
If you are around when someone overdoses on drugs, there are steps you can take to help. Knowing what to do in advance may save critical minutes that could prevent permanent injury or death. These are the steps to treat an overdose:
1. Stay calm
There are few circumstances more intense than witnessing a medical emergency, but it is important not to panic. Keep a level head and move into action. Your anxiety, if you let it arise, could worsen the situation and cause anxiety in those around you. Stay with the overdose victim, and if they’re conscious, let them know everything is going to be okay. Try to get a response from them if they are not conscious.
2. Contact emergency services
A drug overdose is a medical emergency. Dial 911 immediately and have emergency personnel dispatched to the location. You’ll have to provide the dispatcher with lots of information, likely including the height, weight, gender and age of the person overdosing. The dispatcher may give instructions. If the person is unconscious, the dispatcher may instruct you to turn them on their side to prevent aspiration if they start to vomit.
3. Evaluate symptoms of overdose
If the victim is conscious, you can ask about what drugs they took. Otherwise, it may take an investigation to determine what drugs are involved. The differences between the symptoms of depressant and stimulant overdose may be helpful. Examine the area for paraphernalia that can indicate what drugs were used.
4. Treat the overdose
If possible, you should provide treatment as soon as you can. If the overdose victim is not breathing, CPR should be administered. Emergency operators can give people CPR instructions over the phone. In cases of opioid overdose, Narcan or Naloxone can be administered to reverse the effects.
Drug Overdose Risk Factors
The risk factors for overdosing on drugs include those things that make a person more likely to take medication or drugs incorrectly. Risk factors for accidental overdose of prescription drugs include:
- Taking several different medications
- The presence of mental illness
- Age, with the elderly and young children at greatest risk
Risk factors for intentional overdose or overdose of illicit drugs include:
- Use of intravenous drugs
- Gender, with men being more likely to use illicit drugs
- Mental illness
- Poverty or low income
- Mixing alcohol and drugs
- Using several different drugs
- Taking high doses of medication daily
- Use of street drugs
- A past history of overdose
- Using drugs alone
Prognosis Following Overdose
Following a drug overdose, the person’s prognosis will vary widely depending on the specifics of his or her situation. In many cases, the person recovers and does not suffer lasting effects. However, some cases are fatal, even if help was available and appropriately administered.
In cases where an overdose results in brain damage, that injury is generally irreversible. Brain damage occurs if the lung or heart functions are suppressed so that the brain does not get oxygenated blood for an extended period of time. The liver and kidneys are also at high risk to suffer permanent damage during a drug overdose. In some cases, an overdose may cause damage to certain organs or organ systems, but the damage can heal or be repaired over time.
Addiction treatment may be advised following a drug overdose to address the problems that led to drug use. If the reasons behind the event are not addressed, the victim is at risk of overdosing again. Overdosing multiple times can cause organ damage to accumulate. The person’s organs may fail later in life if the damage is sufficiently severe.
Treatments for Substance Use Disorder
There are a number of different addiction treatment methods that may be effective in helping a person to get off drugs after an overdose. A multi-faceted approach might be applied, including any combination of the following:
- Group therapy
- Individual therapy
- Vivitrol medication-assisted therapy
- Educational Groups
- Skill Building
- Relapse prevention group therapy
- Anger management therapy
- Yoga & Meditation Therapy
- Life Skill Education
- Couple & Family Therapy
- Family Programs
Seeing a friend or loved one overdose on drugs is one of the most terrifying, harrowing situations anyone can go through. With the increasing prevalence of drug overdose and opioid use in the United States, it’s important to know what to do to treat an overdose. If you are around someone who is overdosing, the first thing is to stay calm. Call 911 and answer the dispatcher’s questions, and then follow the dispatcher’s instructions. Evaluate the victim for overdose symptoms and administer treatment immediately if possible. Seconds and minutes can make the difference in situations like these to prevent lasting damage.