An overdose occurs when a person takes too much of a drug. When a person overdoses on a drug due to an addiction or substance abuse problem, this is typically because they are attempting to reach a certain level of intoxication. Sometimes, if the person has gone through withdrawal and then relapses, they can overdose because they return to the same amount of the substance that they expect will get them high. Since their physical tolerance has dropped during detox, that dose is too much, and overdose occurs.
Drug Overdose: Symptoms and Statistics
- Changes in pupil size or dilated pupils
- Abnormal behaviors, such as increased aggression or mood swings
- Vomiting or nausea
- Staggering or other loss of coordination
- Extreme confusion
- Paranoia or panic attacks
- Body temperature changes, such as clammy skin or fever
- Changes in breathing
- Changes in heart rate or blood pressure
Some places in the US have seen a 70-fold increase in drug overdose deaths, according to an investigation from CBS. The overall drug overdose rate in the US has increased, in part due to the prescribing practices of many doctors, and in part because of drug trafficking and new drugs on the market, like synthetic marijuana and bath salts. The Centers for Disease Control reports that some counties had over 20 deaths per 100,000 people due to drug overdoses.
Although people can be at risk of overdosing by accident through standard use – for example, overdosing on Tylenol is surprisingly easy due to the number of over-the-counter medications that have acetaminophen – the main demographic at risk of drug overdose are people who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.
Common Drugs Seen in Overdose Cases
There are a few common substances of abuse, which have specific overdose symptoms and treatment. These are:
- Alcohol: Overdosing on alcohol is called alcohol poisoning, and it is one of the most common forms of overdose in the US. Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, vomiting, seizures, slow or irregular breathing, blue-tinged skin, low body temperature, and passing out, especially if the person is unable to wake up. A major cause of alcohol poisoning is binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks in a two-hour time period. The CDC notes that there are about 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths in the US every year, or about six people every day. Most of these deaths occur in people between the ages of 35 and 64, and most are men.
- Opioids: Opioid drug abuse and addiction are considered part of a global problem, and opiate abuse has been declared an epidemic in the US by the CDC. There has been a huge spike in opioid overdoses since 2000, which the CDC suggests is due to the larger availability of prescription opioid painkillers. However, heroin abuse and addiction are also increasing in the US, and that contributes to the increasing numbers. Common symptoms of opioid overdose include reduced or slow breathing, pinpoint pupils, and extreme drowsiness, especially the inability to wake up. Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths in the US have increased 200 percent overall.
- Methamphetamines: Although abuse of methamphetamines is less common than alcohol or opioid abuse, it is still a leading cause of drug overdose deaths. There are several types of methamphetamines, including Molly, MDMA, ecstasy, and crystal meth. Methamphetamine overdose symptoms include agitation, chest pain, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, severe stomach pain, paranoia, high body temperature, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke, and seizure.
- Synthetic cannabis: Some of the fastest-growing problem drugs on the market are synthetic drugs like synthetic cannabis and synthetic cathinones, also known as “bath salts.” These drugs are manufactured specifically to avoid import regulations, so they are sold legally for a short time. The dose is also not regulated in any way, so they much more easily lead to overdose. The most common symptoms of synthetic cannabis overdose are hallucinations, vomiting, and kidney damage.
What to Do during a Drug Overdose
In all cases of overdose, the first and most important step is to call 911 and get emergency medical help. Even if an overdose reversing medication like naloxone is administered, the person suffering the overdose still needs help from medical professionals.
The second step is to not leave the person alone. If the person is unconscious, they could choke on vomit, suffocate, stop breathing, or suffer another medical emergency like a heart attack. It is important to wait with the unconscious person until professional medical assistance arrives. If the person is conscious, they are likely to wander away, or they could fall and hurt themselves. They may also attempt to continue consuming the intoxicating substance. For example, during binge drinking, people often don’t stop drinking even when they begin to suffer an overdose. Stay with the person and make sure they do not continue to consume intoxicating substances.
Do not give them any other medications, even over-the-counter painkillers or caffeine, because these can add symptoms to the overdose. If they are safely able to swallow without vomiting or aspirating, they should be given small sips of water to prevent dehydration.
Once the person arrives at the hospital, doctors will begin taking steps to counteract overdose symptoms. This can involve several medical procedures, from pumping the stomach to administering overdose antidote drugs, if available. The person will likely be put on IV fluids or saline to prevent dehydration and system imbalances. The individual could be in the hospital for a few hours to a few days, depending on how serious the overdose is.
Get Help before a Drug Overdose
If the person overdosed on an intoxicating substance due to a substance abuse or addiction problem, friends and family should encourage them to get help through a rehabilitation program, if they are not already pursuing this avenue. Rehabilitation programs can be either inpatient or outpatient, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends staying in a treatment program for at least 90 days. The person will receive medical oversight to safely detox from the substance, while also receiving therapy from an individual therapist, often in addition to group therapy. Detox helps the individual end their physical dependence on the drug, but therapy actually treats the mental disease of addiction. During therapy, the person will learn about the roots of their addiction, along with ways to cope with cravings if they appear in the future.
If you, or someone you love, are struggling with drug addiction, the best way to deal with overdose is to prevent it from happening by reaching out for help today. With comprehensive care, you can stop abusing drugs and make overdose an impossibility.