Drug and alcohol overdose is a tragic problem in the United States and around the world, and poses a serious threat to the 20 million Americans suffering from substance abuse and their families. Even if you, or someone you know, “only occasionally experiments” with drugs – or if perhaps you are prescribed medication but have no history of abuse – there is always a risk. It’s critical to educate yourself on how to prevent and treat an overdose.
Based on data cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- More than 750,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999
- Opioid overdose deaths have increased 6 times since 1999
- Two out of three overdose-related deaths in 2018 resulted from opioids
- For every fatal overdose, there are many more nonfatal overdoses (aside from benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax, nonfatal overdoses have increased for every type of drug)
- Nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year
When you factor in COVID-19, the risk becomes even more staggering. A CDC analysis recently found that, when compared to 2019, overdose deaths were up by over 10 percent from January to April of 2020. The New York Times reported that “If the trend continues, the United States in 2020 will see its sharpest increase in annual overdose deaths since 2016.”
Ultimately, overdose does not discriminate which is why learning of ways on how to prevent an overdose is so important. Given that only 10 percent of those diagnosed with addiction receive treatment, the risk remains and will continue. In recognition of International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31st, we’d like to shed light on this very real issue, provide insight on overdose recovery, and honor the lives lost by the devastating disease that is addiction.
What happens to your body when you overdose?
Overdoses can be accidental or intentional, and can occur with over-the-counter medications as well as with prescription and recreational drugs, and alcohol. They occur when a person takes more of the substance than their body can effectively metabolize. Even if individuals take a prescription drug at the recommended dosage, they can still overdose if they have a low tolerance for the medication. Common overdose types include:
Depressants, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, affect the central nervous system (CNS) and are addictive because of their sedative effects. They lower blood pressure and body temperature, and decrease an individual’s heart rate and breathing. Sedation leads to feelings of calmness and euphoria, which provide immense but potentially harmful relief. If you consume more than your body can handle, it can lead to respiratory failure, overdose, coma, and/or death.
Opioids, which include prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl, are one of the most commonly and easily abused substances to overdose on. Our bodies have several opioid receptors and, once they are activated by opioid use, it results in intense feelings of calmness. When too much is consumed, these receptors are blocked, break down, and can stop your breathing altogether.
The body can process roughly one unit of pure alcohol per hour (the equivalent of a shot of liquor, 8 ounces of beer, or a third of a glass of wine). If you consume more than this in the given time period, your body will not be able to metabolize it quickly enough, which can lead to an overdose (also known as alcohol poisoning). Individuals who frequently binge drink – even if it’s unintentional – are at the greatest risk.
Ultimately, the effects of an overdose can range from minimal physical or emotional disruption to death. If you want to learn more about specific substances and their risk for addiction/overdose, we’d encourage you to check out our additional resources here.
What causes someone to overdose?
Overdose causes are complex and highly personal. If children come in contact with prescription medication, they may be curious and ingest it, which can lead to an accidental overdose. For adolescents and adults, curiosity, the desire to fit in, boredom, and mental health issues (i.e. depression, wanting to harm oneself, inability to cope with a traumatic experience, etc) are common causes of overdose.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue, given the economic recession, unemployment rates, social isolation, and uncertainty. These factors correlate with increased susceptibility to illegal drug use to cope with the mental health implications.
“People are feeling a lot more despair, anxiety, and rootlessness,” and that can “lead to more problematic drug use and more risk of overdose,” said Brendan Saloner, a substance use disorder researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Additionally, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, noted: “We have two things colliding: the stress of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with [Covid-19], and also the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to you, (with high levels of) unemployment, or if you are studying, what will happen to your education. And then the social distancing and isolation that makes the whole process much worse.”
What are the risk factors of overdose?
Although anyone can be a victim of an overdose, there are certain risk factors that increase a person’s chances. Some common factors include:
- The amount of time a person has been using a drug
- A user who consumes more of the drug to get an intense high
- Someone who is clearly dependent on the drug
There are also risk factors not associated with the use of the drug itself. People are more at risk for accidental overdoses if they:
- Are very young or very old
- Take several different medications
- Live with mental illness or have a dual diagnosis/pre-existing condition
If someone is an active drug abuser, they will be more at risk of an overdose if they:
- Take several medications daily
- Inject drugs (the effects of IV-administered drugs occur more quickly, and often those using an IV are looking for a stronger high)
- Mix alcohol with drugs or use multiple substances
- Have a history of overdose
- Return to use after a period of abstinence (such as after treatment or jail, when their tolerance is lower)
What are the signs and symptoms of overdose?
A number of symptoms will be evident after someone has taken too much of a substance. These can vary depending on the substance taken, but there are some effects common to most drugs. They include:
- Problems with pulse rate, respiration, or blood pressure
- Confusion, drowsiness or coma
- Clammy or cold skin
- Chest pains
- Breathing irregularities, either slow and depressed or fast and erratic
- Vomiting, nausea or diarrhea
- In the event that you witness an overdose or believe your own situation is life-threatening, then please call 911 immediately.
How to prevent an overdose?
You can help someone prevent overdose by encouraging them to get treatment or maintain abstinence, offering assistance with managing their prescribed medications, and having Narcan (naloxone) readily available.
If you suspect that you personally are at risk for an overdose, try not to use to prevent further risk. It sounds easier said than done, but there are proven ways to withstand the urge. Seek immediate counsel from your doctor if you are on prescribed medications, keep a supply of Narcan available, maintain a list of emergency phone numbers, and develop a network of daily support contacts. Connect with people with whom you can relate and share experiences, and create daily reminders of the potentially devastating effects that can result from your drug or alcohol abuse. It’s also important to remember that you do not need to wait until you overdose to seek rehab or a recovery program.
How can I help someone who has overdosed? What does treatment look like?
Call 911 immediately, administer Narcan to reverse the effects of a drug overdose, and stay with the individual(s) until medical professionals arrive. Also, alcohol overdose, in particular, can reduce body temperature and increase an individual’s gag reflex. Therefore, hot coffee and cold showers are not advised. Be sure to place the individual on their side to prevent vomiting.
Anyone who has suffered a drug or alcohol overdose would benefit from a thorough assessment by a doctor or another relevant health professional, to determine the level of help needed for the person’s mental health and/or substance abuse. Often, overdose becomes a catalyst of change for many people. Entering treatment provides an opportunity for individuals with addiction – and their families – to evaluate the consequences of drug/alcohol use and its associated lifestyle, and to create a clear path forward toward recovery and mental, emotional, and physical freedom.
Time to remember. Time to act. Help prevent an overdose
The theme of this year’s International Overdose Awareness Day is “Time to remember. Time to act.” In recent years and with the rise in overdose deaths, it is not uncommon for people to have multiple family members or know multiple people who have died from addiction. At Crest View, we often see family members use addiction awareness days as opportunities to share their stories of devastation, ways to prevent an overdose as well as their hope for the future. Today and every day, it’s a time to remember the many lives lost, and a time to act, warning others of the risks of continued use and proactively supporting our loved ones suffering from addiction. There are a lot of people to remember, and there is still a lot of work left to do.
Prevent an Overdose at Crest View Recovery
If you or someone you love has survived the trauma and pain associated with a drug overdose, you know just how frightening it is. Moreover, the fact that an overdose occurred may be a wake-up call, a clear sign that you or someone you love needs professional help.
Located in the beautiful mountains of Asheville, NC, Crest View Recovery Center offers comprehensive substance abuse treatment programs to help you along your journey to sobriety. Comfortable, beautiful, safe and private, our center provides individualized addiction therapy services that take your specific needs and situation into consideration.
Whether you’re trying to put the horrors of a drug overdose in the rearview mirror, or you want to prevent one from happening altogether, our professionals are ready to help. Contact Crest View Recovery Center staff at 866-350-5622 today.