Understanding the Risk of Drug Overdose

Individuals struggling with drug addiction often do not intend to overdose on their drug of choice. Overdose might happen accidentally for a variety of reasons, such as taking a regular dosage after tolerance has lowered, taking a stronger dose than the body is accustomed to, or combining substances of abuse. While some people do overdose intentionally, the majority of overdoses are unintended.

Overdose is a medical emergency, and prompt medical attention is required to prevent serious health effects, including death. Some states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed “Good Samaritan” laws that legally protect the person who suffered the overdose, as well as those who call 911 to report the emergency.

What Is an Overdose?

Depressed Man PortraitDepending on what drug a person has taken, symptoms of an overdose vary. It is not always easy to recognize overdose symptoms when someone has used too much of an opioid drug, because the drug’s effects are so similar to those of an overdose. People may not realize they are experiencing an overdose, especially if they are heavily under the influence of that drug. Some of the symptoms of overdose include severe chest pain, seizure, severe headache, difficulty breathing, and either delirium, extreme agitation, or anxiety.

In addition to these symptoms, others symptoms include:

  • Increased or decreased body temperature
  • Passing out
  • Skin color chances (pale if a depressant was used and flushed if a stimulant was used)
  • Abnormal breathing
  • Fast or slowed pulse
  • Oftentimes, it is difficult for individuals to know exactly how much of a drug they are injecting, snorting, smoking, or taking orally. According to the University of California at Los Angeles, this becomes even more difficult if people are injecting a substance into their veins. The effects of the drug are more intense and take action much more quickly than if the drug were swallowed. Those who choose to inject drugs, such as heroin, are often looking for a stronger high than they would otherwise get.

    Users may feel that there is safety in numbers, believing that if something goes wrong while using drugs that the other people present will assist them as needed. In party situations, friends or acquaintances may fear consequences from law enforcement if they call 911. As a result, some people may simply leave the scene if they suspect someone is overdosing on drugs.

    How Does It Happen?

    The person experiencing an overdose may not experience every overdose symptom. After a large quantity of a substance is taken, the body may not be able to process the entire dosage. According to the Student Health Outreach and Promotion at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the body can’t tolerate the dose of the drug, and it begins to react to the drug’s toxicity.

    An individual can experience a drug overdose for several reasons. An individual’s tolerance level varies with health, age, weight, and how the drug was ingested.

    If the person hasn’t used the drug for some time, the person’s tolerance level falls. When the drug is used again, the person may take the dose used previously and experience an overdose.

    After the person has begun to show initial signs of overdose, additional symptoms may appear, such as unresponsiveness, loss of consciousness, mental confusion, gasping for air or snoring, vomiting, breathing erratically, and bluish or pale skin.

    What Should Be Done?

    When an individual is suffering from a drug overdose, call 911 immediately. Do not leave the person alone; stay with them until medical professionals arrive.

    If the person has passed out, they should be placed on their side just in case they vomit. The person should not eat or drink anything. If friends know what substances were taken, they should report this to emergency responders so appropriate treatment can be given.

    If the person has consumed too much alcohol, do not attempt to make them drink coffee or put them in a cold shower. These longstanding home “treatments” for alcohol intoxication do not help to sober the person up. They can lead to accidents or injuries. In cases of alcohol poisoning, immediate treatment is necessary. If it isn’t received, the following could occur:

    • The person could vomit and then choke on the vomit.
    • The person could experience an irregular heartbeat, or the heart could even stop.
    • The person could experience slowed or irregular breathing, or breathing could stop altogether.
    • Body temperature may drop.
    • The person’s blood sugar can fall so low that seizures occur, according to the University of Texas-Austin’s Division of Student Affairs.
    • If the person vomits repeatedly, severe dehydration may occur, which can also lead to seizures. In severe cases, the person can suffer lifelong brain damage or even die.

    Good Samaritan Laws

    Under Good Samaritan laws, if people realize that someone is experiencing an overdose, they should call 911 right away and report the emergency. Once they do so, and emergency responders give medical assistance to the person in need, they are given limited protection from prosecution for possession of drugs and/or alcohol. According to Upstate Medical University, the person who overdosed receives the same immunity for possession of small amounts of illicit substances. While this limited immunity protects those who possess or use alcohol or drugs, it won’t protect from other drug- and non-drug-related crimes.

    According to the Drug Policy Alliance, 32 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted Good Samaritan laws. These include:

    New Mexico
    New Hampshire
    New Jersey
    New York
    North Carolina
    North Dakota
    Rhode Island
    West Virginia

    Drug Policy Alliance points out that only the person witnessing the drug overdose and the person suffering from the overdose are protected under the Good Samaritan law. They are protected from being under the influence, simple drug possession, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

    According to Rutgers University, these Good Samaritan immunity laws have the potential to save lives, reducing fear around calling for professional medical help. Generally, in cases of overdose, 1-3 hours may pass between the time the person takes the drug and death. If emergency responders can reach the person suffering from an overdose during this window, the person is more likely to survive via lifesaving treatment.

    Signs of an Overdose

    Different drugs will cause different overdose symptoms. Overdose signs for the following drug classes and/or drugs include:

    • Depressants: dilated pupils, shallow breathing, weak or rapid pulse, clammy skin, and coma (could lead to death)
    • Hallucinogens: psychosis; seizures and unconsciousness with PCP overdose
    • Inhalants: seizures and unconsciousness (could lead to death)
    • Marijuana: paranoia, fatigue, and possible psychosis
    • Narcotics: clammy skin, convulsions, coma, and slow, shallow breathing (could lead to death)
    • Stimulants: increase in body temperature, increased agitation, hallucinations, and convulsions (could lead to death)

    Is Overdose a Sign That Treatment Is Necessary?

    In most instances, overdose is a clear sign that treatment is necessary. That being said, someone can overdose the first time they use a substance, so in those instances, the person may not be struggling with addiction so comprehensive addiction care may not be needed. Even in those instances, education on substance use and abuse is recommended, though the overdose itself will likely serve as the biggest deterrent to future drug use.

    Most people who overdose have a history of substance abuse and/or addiction. For these people, comprehensive treatment that includes medical detox and therapy is needed. Treatment should address the underlying reasons that led to substance abuse in the first place as well as any co-occurring medical or mental health issues. With assistance, recovery is within reach, ensuring a future that is free of overdose and related health issues.

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