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Drug Overdose Symptoms and Signs

A drug overdose is a scary and often life-threatening situation. An overdose can happen to anyone, whether you’re a first-time user or someone suffering from a prolonged substance use disorder. Drug overdoses are a leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States. In 2021, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) determined 106,699 people in the U.S. died due to drug overdose — a number that has more than quintupled since the turn of the century.

These numbers have led to the declaration of drug overdoses as a public health crisis, allowing the government to dedicate more resources than ever to learn about, identify and treat addiction and overdoses. When a person overdoses, it is a medical emergency, and drug overdose symptoms require professional help as soon as possible for the best chance of recovery.

If you or a loved one suffers from a substance use disorder and is at risk of overdosing, help is available. Gateway offers educational resources as a first step to understanding drug addiction and beginning the road to recovery. With individualized plans for Residential Treatment, Outpatient programs, and aftercare, you can find a program that suits your needs and reduces the risk of overdose.

how does an overdose happen

How Does an Overdose Happen?

A drug overdose occurs when an individual uses a drug in greater amounts than are prescribed or recommended. It can also occur when someone takes a drug in a way that’s not intended — such as snorting or injecting a drug that is meant to be swallowed, or combining a drug with another substance.

Some overdoses are intentional and are the result of an individual attempting to commit suicide. Accidental overdoses happen when an individual takes more of a medication than prescribed, takes a combination of medications or ingests large amounts of an illegal drug to try to get a more intense high.

Certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of overdosing such as:

  • Resuming drug use after a period of abstinence
  • Having a significant drug dependency
  • Discontinuing a substance use treatment program
  • Using multiple substances at once
  • Taking large amounts at once and increasing the amount taken over time

Even if a person with a substance use disorder has previously tolerated a certain dose, a period of abstinence lowers the body’s tolerance to a drug. This can lead to an overdose.

what to do if someone overdosesWhat Are the Signs of an Overdose?

In 2021, 80,411 overdose deaths involved prescription or illicit opioids, but individuals can overdose on anything from alcohol to depressants, stimulants, synthetic substances like K2 or kratom, and prescription drugs.

Signs of an overdose can vary depending on the type of drug a person took and whether they combined it with another substance. For example, an opioid overdose will have different symptoms than an overdose on amphetamines.

In general, the signs or symptoms of drug overdose include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Shallow or irregular breathing
  • Snoring or gurgling sounds due to a blocked airway
  • A bluish tint on lips or hands which indicates a lack of oxygen
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Disorientation or paranoia
  • Erratic behavior
  • Severe chest pains
  • Severe headache
  • Irregular body temperature
  • Seizures, convulsions or tremors

Someone does not need to exhibit all these symptoms to be experiencing an overdose — just a few can be a sign that they are in distress and need medical attention.

Depending on which symptoms a person exhibits, you may be able to gain insight into what type of substance or combination of substances the person consumed in excess. This information can help you determine the next steps to help the person as well as help first responders determine the best way to reverse the effects of the overdose and save a person’s life.

If you know what substances a person took — either by their verbal admission or by signs like empty bottles nearby — you should see whether their symptoms align with the symptoms of that substance’s overdose and act accordingly. Keep in mind you should take any signs of overdose seriously, even if they don’t line up with the type of substance you think the person took. Call 911 right away so you can get the medical help your loved one needs.

What happens when you OD, what an overdose feels like and how long overdose symptoms last can vary depending on whether a person overdosed on a depressant drug, a stimulant drug or alcohol.

signs of a depressant overdose

Signs of a Depressant Overdose

Depressants are drugs that depress the central nervous system. This includes various types of sedatives, tranquilizers and hypnotics. Depressants slow brain function, breathing and heart rate, which enables them to treat issues like anxiety and sleep disorders when used correctly under medical supervision.

These drugs carry serious risks when a person misuses them or takes them in excess. A person may overdose using prescription depressants, such as Xanax or Valium, or illicit depressant drugs like heroin. Note that cannabis is also a depressant, but unless it is laced with other substances, it does not pose much risk of a life-altering or life-threatening overdose.

Depressant overdoses can also be more likely when combined with other substances. Alcohol or opiates, like heroin, combined with benzodiazepines — a category of depressants — can cause an increased risk of overdose or death.

A person may be suffering from a depressant overdose if:

  • They won’t wake up or respond to you.
  • They are not breathing or are breathing shallowly.
  • They are snoring or making gurgling sounds.
  • Their lips, fingertips or other extremities have turned blue.
  • They are significantly disoriented.
  • They have a weak pulse or extremely low blood pressure.

Signs of an Alcohol Overdose

Alcohol is also a depressant, but an alcohol overdose carries some different risks and symptoms compared to overdoses of other depressants. An alcohol overdose, also called alcohol poisoning, occurs when a person’s bloodstream contains too much alcohol and their basic functions begin to shut down. A person can die from cardiac arrest or respiratory failure as a result in the most severe cases. They are also in danger of choking on vomit. Approximately six people die every day in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning.

From 2015 to 2019, an estimated 140,000 people died yearly due to excessive alcohol use and related consequences. Nearly 2,500 people died each year due to alcohol poisoning between 2017 and 2021.

You cannot judge whether a person has overdosed on alcohol by quantifying the drinks they had since every person has a different alcohol tolerance level. Another factor to consider is that a person can mix alcohol with other depressants, like sleeping pills, amplifying the effects of both the alcohol and the drug.

A person may be experiencing alcohol poisoning if:

  • They are unconscious or are struggling to remain conscious.
  • They appear severely disoriented.
  • They are vomiting, especially while sleeping or without gagging to expel vomit from their mouth.
  • Their body is seizing or spasming.
  • Their body temperature is too low, and their skin is pale or bluish in color.
  • They are taking fewer than eight breaths per minute or are waiting 10 seconds or more between breaths.
  • Their heart rate is dangerously low.

Signs of a Stimulant Overdose

Stimulants have an energizing effect on a person and can improve mood and focus. Stimulants include common substances like caffeine and aspirin, prescription drugs and illegal substances. The stimulant drugs a person may overdose on include prescription medications like Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin and illegal stimulants like cocaine, crack cocaine, crystal meth and ecstasy. An added danger with these drugs is that they are often cut with other harmful substances. Overdose deaths involving stimulants rose to 53,495 in 2021.

Overdose effects from stimulants are not typically as deadly as the effects of a depressant overdose, but you should still treat a stimulant overdose seriously. Medical intervention is critical in these cases since a person could experience a heart attack, seizure, stroke or another serious issue as a result of the overdose.

A person may be experiencing a stimulant overdose if:

  • They are unconscious.
  • They are experiencing chest pains.
  • They are having a difficult time breathing.
  • Their head is aching severely.
  • They are disoriented.
  • They are running a high fever and are not sweating.
  • Their body is convulsing.

Signs of an Opioid Overdose

More than three-quarters of drug overdoses since the start of the 2020s have been related to opioids and synthetic opioids, including prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl.

Of all these drugs, fentanyl has proven itself to be particularly dangerous. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it was lab-developed for medical use, with a strength up to 100 times that of morphine. Over time, though, it became a popular street drug, making it much more easily accessible. It’s often cut with other medications without a trace, meaning many people ingest fentanyl without knowing while using other drugs, which can increase the risk of overdose. Of deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2021, 70% also involved fentanyl.

Some signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Clammy skin
  • A limp body and depressed movements
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred or garbled speech
  • Being unable to wake up
  • Slowed breathing and heartbeat

What to Do If Someone Overdoseswhat to do if someone overdoses

If you are with someone who is attempting to overdose, you should first focus on how to stop an overdose from occurring. For the person’s safety, do your best to remove the dangerous substance. In many cases, a person does not get this opportunity or does not realize a person is overdosing until they begin to exhibit the signs discussed above. As soon as you suspect a person has overdosed, you should act quickly.

Here are some steps to guide you through how to help someone overdosing:

1. Call 911

Even if you’re not sure whether a person is at serious risk, you should call 911 immediately when you suspect an overdose. Some people may hesitate to call emergency services because the person who has overdosed asks them not to. This may be motivated by a desire to carry out a suicide attempt or to avoid charges in the case of illegal drug use. If you are at a party where you or others are also using illegal drugs, this can further complicate matters.

You should never let these factors prevent or delay you from calling 911 since immediate medical intervention provides the best chance for a person’s survival and recovery. In many states, you won’t be prosecuted for drug use when you do the right thing by calling 911.

2. Gather Information

The 911 operator will ask you questions about the situation so first responders can get to work quickly and you know what to do until they get there. If the person who overdosed is conscious, ask them what they took, when they took it and in what quantities. Make sure you note whether they mixed substances like alcohol and pills.

Substance abuse and mental illness comorbidities often go hand in hand. If the person who overdosed is able to answer questions, information about their mental health diagnoses as well as any psychiatric medication they’re taking can help emergency workers plan their responses.

Do not hold back any details to protect a friend’s reputation. The best thing you can do for them during an overdose is enable first responders to address the issue correctly. Once you get basic information from the person who has overdosed, it’s a good idea to continue to talk to them and ask questions to keep them alert.

3. Help the Person

Knowing what to do when someone ODs is difficult if you’re not a medical professional. This is where the 911 operator can help you respond appropriately. The 911 operator should walk you through the steps you need to take, depending on what drug overdose signs and symptoms the person is exhibiting. This may include checking their heart rate and breathing, for example. If a person is not breathing or is unconscious, you should perform CPR.

The 911 operator may also ask you to turn the person on their side. This is especially important if a person is vomiting, since lying on their back could lead to choking. If the person is overheated, you’ll want to remove clothing and attempt to cool them off. Make sure the person does not eat or drink anything, and stay with them until help arrives.

If you know a person has overdosed on opioids and you have access to Naloxone, widely known under the trade name of NARCAN, you should safely administer it. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Naloxone to counteract life-threatening drug overdose symptoms. However, its effects are temporary, and individuals still need professional medical attention even with successful administration.

Never assume you know how to stop an overdose on your own, even if you or a loved one has experienced one in the past. If someone you know is overdosing, the most important thing to do is act quickly and seek out medical attention.

How Do Doctors Treat Overdose?

There are two aspects of drug overdose treatment. One aspect is the immediate care a person needs to overcome the harmful effects of the overdose and reach a stable medical condition. Once the person is no longer at risk of death or other immediate, life-altering consequences, they need ongoing care to help recover from the experience and treat the depression, substance use disorder or other underlying issue that led to their overdose.

Initial drug overdose treatments depend on what drug an individual took. If the individual ingested the drug, for instance, medical professionals could pump their stomach to expel the drug from their body. They may also administer activated charcoal to prevent drugs from being absorbed into the blood and help the body dispel them naturally. Medical staff may also administer other drugs to help counteract the effects of the overdose and stabilize the person. Doctors understand how to treat drug overdose in a way that addresses each patient’s immediate physical needs.

After successful initial treatment, individuals often need Residential or Outpatient Treatment to manage the effects of drug withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can be one of the most difficult after-effects of an overdose that resulted from a prolonged substance use disorder. A medically supervised withdrawal is the safest way to go through this experience.

Even after a person’s body is not physically dependent on drugs or alcohol, they must receive ongoing treatment so they can gain the tools to live a drug-free life. No one should have to take this journey alone. Having the support of a healing recovery community can help greatly. Gateway Foundation offers tailored programs, counseling and post-treatment recovery support to help manage the long-term physical and emotional effects of a substance use disorder.

A person may see an overdose as a wake-up call and vow to swear off the substance they were addicted to, but overcoming substance use disorder is not a matter of willpower. It is a medical disease that requires both immediate and long-term treatment if you want to live addiction-free.

Get Help at Gateway

You or someone you love might have been lucky enough to survive drug overdose symptoms. When they’re no longer at risk of immediate danger, individuals who have overdosed need recovery treatment to manage the symptoms of withdrawal. However, it could point to a bigger issue. Count this survival as an opportunity to take a bold step forward in the direction of a life that is healthy, whole and free of substance abuse.

Gateway Foundation offers an array of individualized addiction treatment programs to help people stop using and start living a more productive life. All our programs are evidence-based, science-driven and person-centered since we understand that each patient’s needs are unique. You can find the program that makes you most comfortable and helps you thrive on your journey to recovery. We understand that recovery is an ongoing process, which is why we remain invested in our patients’ care for life.

Call us at 877-381-6538 or fill out a contact form today for more information.

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