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Overdose: Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Options

Overdose is a serious issue in the United States, with over 90,000 people dying from drug-related overdoses in 2020 alone. Drug overdoses are among the leading causes of death, with their incidence nearly doubled since 2015.1

An overdose occurs when a person takes more of a drug than their body can safely process. This can happen accidentally if a person takes more of a drug than they intended to, or deliberately if they are trying to get high.2

Overdoses can have serious and even life-threatening consequences. The most common cause of death from an overdose is respiratory arrest, which occurs when the person stops breathing.2

Certain groups of people are more at risk to overdose on drugs than others. People with substance use disorders are more likely to overdose on a drug than people who use drugs recreationally. People who use opioids are also at a higher risk for overdose, as these drugs are particularly dangerous and can easily lead to respiratory arrest.1

There are a few things that can be done to prevent overdoses from happening. If you or someone you know is using drugs,or exhibits symptoms of overdose, it is important to be aware of the risks and to get help if needed. Substance abuse treatment can help people who are struggling with addiction and reduce the risk of overdose.3

What Is An Overdose?

An overdose is defined as an excessive or dangerous dose of a drug or other substance. The term can also refer to the accidental or intentional taking of a larger amount of medication than recommended. Overdoses can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.4

Symptoms of an overdose vary depending on the substance involved but may include vomiting, seizures, irregular heartbeat, and respiratory failure. If you suspect that someone has overdosed on a drug or other substance, it is important to seek medical help immediately.1

Many people think that an overdose is immediately fatal, but that’s not always the case. Many overdoses can be reversed if caught early enough. In fact, as many as 97% of opioid users have reported experiencing at least one overdose, meaning there’s a high probability of a positive outcome.4

There are a variety of drugs that can cause an overdose, including:5,6,7,8

  • Alcohol.
  • Prescription or illegal opioids.
  • Benzodiazepine (Xanax or Valium)
  • Stimulants.

In some cases, causes of overdose may include combining several dangerous substances, including those listed above. Polydrug use can exacerbate their individual dangers due to their additive effects. For example, overdoses caused by benzodiazepines are often associated with simultaneous illicit opioid abuse.9

An Overview of Overdose Statistics

In the U.S. nearly 92,000 people died from drug-related overdoses in 2020, including those caused by illicit substances and prescription opioids. Synthetic opioids were involved in nearly half of all overdose deaths, with fentanyl being the most common culprit. However, heroin and prescription opioids were also among the leading causes of overdose.1

Overdose deaths have been on the rise in the U.S. for several years now, and 2020 saw a significant increase from 2019 (by nearly 20,000 cases). This is likely due to a number of factors, including the ongoing opioid epidemic.1

The number of emergency department admissions for benzodiazepine overdoses increased by nearly 25% between 2019 and 2020. Over 90% of overdose deaths involving prescription and illicit benzodiazepines occurred alongside prescription and illicit opioid abuse, which further emphasizes the danger of combining benzodiazepines with opioids. A total of nearly 7,000 deaths were caused by benzodiazepines in 23 states between January 2019 and June 2020 which accounts for 17% of all overdose-related fatalities.9

Signs & Symptoms Of Overdose

There is a large range of symptoms of overdose, based on the substance or substances used. In the case of certain types of substances, such as opioids, the signs and symptoms of overdose may differ somewhat from the short-term effects of the drug or indicate a dangerous progression. In these cases, you may recognize the signs of overdose in the form of respiratory failure.4

The symptoms of an overdose can vary depending on the drug that was taken. However, some common symptoms include:5,6,7,8

  • Seizures.
  • Chest pain. 
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty walking.
  • Loss of consciousness.

If you or someone you know has overdosed on a drug, it is important to seek medical help immediately. An overdose can be fatal, and the sooner medical help is sought, the better the chances of survival.4

In case of an opioid overdose, the symptoms may also include:4

  • Blue skin, specifically the lips and fingertips.
  • Limp body movements.
  • Pale face.
  • The person is conscious but unresponsive, and makes choking or gurgling noises.
  • They may vomit or lose consciousness.
  • The pulse is either slow or erratic.

Additionally, overdosing on alcohol also exhibits unique symptoms, including:5

  • Trouble staying conscious or losing consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature.

How Long Does It Take to Recover From Overdose Symptoms?

Overdoses can be extremely dangerous, and even life-threatening. If you or someone you know has overdosed on a substance, it is important to seek medical help immediately. The amount of time it takes to recover from an overdose will vary depending on the substance involved, its dose, the patient’s drug abuse history and the individual’s overall health. However, with proper treatment, most people will make a full recovery.6

In general, you need to monitor people who have overdosed for at least 4 hours following naloxone treatment, and longer if the person has used long-acting opioids. Following drug overdose treatment a person’s normal breathing pattern should return within 5 minutes. However, overdose symptoms may return so monitoring the patient for signs of overdose is essential.6

Despite the fact that consciousness may return after a drug overdose in about a day or two, it may take up to three weeks for the drug residue to leave the brain. During this period, the patient may experience late symptoms of overdose or withdrawal, including restlessness, insomnia, epileptic phenomena or delirium.10

What are the Risks Involved and Common Causes of Overdose?

The risk factors for drug overdose are many and varied. Some people may be more likely to experience an overdose due to their physiology, while others may be more likely to overdose because of their lifestyle choices or environment. Understanding the various risk factors for drug overdose is important for prevention and intervention.11

There are many risk factors and causes associated with drug overdose. Factors that contribute to increased risk include:11

  • Use of multiple drugs at the same time (polydrug use)
  • Use of high doses of drugs
  • Mixing drugs together (including alcohol)
  • Having a history of drug abuse or addiction
  • Having co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety
  • Having a chronic pain condition
  • Taking drugs that interact with each other negatively
  • Living conditions and social status
  • History of Incarceration
  • Limited access to substance abuse treatment

What Does The Standard Drug Overdose Treatment Entail?

Short-term drug overdose treatment should be focused on treating the immediate symptoms of overdose. This is usually done by using Naloxone.  Naloxone is a drug that can reverse the symptoms of overdose. If a person is overdosing on opioids, naloxone can be administered to immediately reverse the effects of the overdose.4

Naloxone is available as an injection or a nasal spray, and it is important to know how to use it correctly in order to save a person’s life. Naloxone works within 2 to 8 minutes following admission, but usually wears off faster than the drug that led to the overdose. This is why getting immediate medical assistance is key to saving someone’s life when they overdose on drugs.4

When it comes to long-term overdose treatment, there are a few different types of treatment programs that can be very helpful. Approximately one out of every twenty patients treated and discharged from the emergency room after receiving drug overdose treatment die within a year. Approximately in two thirds of those deaths the patients overdose on drugs.12

Detoxification programs can help a person get rid of symptoms of overdose, withdrawal symptoms they may experience and all the drugs in their system, and this can be an important first step in overcoming addiction.3 

Inpatient treatment programs provide around-the-clock care and support, and can be very beneficial for people who are struggling with addiction and those with a history of relapse.3

Outpatient treatment programs also offer a lot of support, but patients are expected to live at home. However, for those with a tendency to overdose on drugs, this treatment modality may be more appropriate as a step-down from inpatient treatment.3

All of these programs can be very helpful in preventing overdoses from happening in the future. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are many resources available to help. There are also prescription drug hotlines available for free and available 24/7. These are valuable resources that can help patients find a local treatment center, and get additional information on available payment options, or check whether their insurance will cover the cost of treatment.3

How To Prevent Overdose?

When patients overdose on drugs, timing is essential in order to save their life.6 

The first step to preventing an overdose is to be aware of the signs and symptoms. Some common signs include slowed breathing, blue lips or nails, shallow breathing, and loss of consciousness. If you see any of these signs, it is important to call 911 right away.6

In addition to calling 911, it is also important to administer naloxone if you have it available. Naloxone can reverse the symptoms of overdose and buy time for emergency responders to arrive. Finally, it is important to support the person’s breathing until help arrives. This can be done by placing them in a recovery position or by giving them rescue breaths.6

Monitoring the person’s response is also essential. If they do not respond to naloxone, more doses may be necessary. It is also important to continue to support their breathing and monitor their vital signs until help arrives.6

What To Do If You Overdose?

If you or someone you know has overdosed on drugs, it is important to seek medical help immediately. Overdoses can be life-threatening and require emergency medical attention.4

It is also important to let the medical professionals know what substance the person has overdosed on, if possible. This will allow them to provide the best possible treatment.4

If you are struggling with addiction, there is help available. There are numerous drug and alcohol abuse hotlines, such as the ones offered by SAMHSA or American Addiction Centers. Their admissions navigators can provide you with information like treatment costs, verifying your insurance coverage and finding a treatment program that fits your needs. All calls made to their hotlines are completely confidential.

There are a variety of different types of rehab centers available for people who overdose on drugs, depending on individual needs. If you want a luxurious rehab experience, there are centers that offer high-end amenities that accept private payment methods. If you need to be in a treatment center right away, there are also centers that offer same-day admittance. Other centers are specifically tailored to treating couples

If you are looking for information on different types of rehab centers, looking for private pay options or need help finding a treatment center that is right for you, please call the AAC heroin abuse hotline.

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