Each day in the United States, 100 people die from drug overdoses. The annual count passed 36,000 in 2008, with 14,800 of these deaths resulting from prescription painkillers – that’s a rate that has more than tripled since 1990. More devastating is it to comprehend that these deaths were one hundred percent preventable. Everyone – not just drug users and their families – needs to be aware of how to prevent, identify, and respond to a drug overdose.
What is an overdose?
An overdose refers to the excessive consumption of a particular drug or combination of drugs to the point that the body can no longer maintain its vital functions. Breathing and heart rate, among other factors, are affected and compromised. Different substances lead to different overdoses, so it is important to recognize the various symptoms and to know how to prevent yourself or a loved one from overdosing.
Know what you are putting into your body, and you will have better knowledge of how to respond to any emergencies that may arise.
How do I prevent an overdose?
Don’t mix drugs. The outcomes of multiple substances interacting can be difficult — often impossible — to determine. Most fatal overdoses occur as a result of multi-substance abuse.
Pay attention to your prescriptions. Many seemingly harmless prescription drugs are not intended to be taken alongside alcohol. Drugs such as benzodiazepines can intensify the effects of other substances. Exercise extreme caution, even with the medications given to you by your physician.
Do not binge drink or do drugs alone. While substance abuse is extremely unsafe under any circumstances, smoking or injecting with a sober friend provides a certain measure of safety in that someone will be there to call 911 if you need it. If you do choose to use drugs alone, inform a friend or neighbor who can check in on you periodically and ensure that you have not overdosed.
Pace yourself. If you drink, don’t binge. If you mix drugs, don’t take them all at once. Know your body, know your limits, and be aware of the circumstances.
Be smart. Some drugs, like ecstasy, are often “cut” with another substance like cocaine or methamphetamine. If you are taking an illicit drug, be aware of where it came from. Know what you are putting into your body and you will have better knowledge of how to respond to any emergencies that may arise.
What does an overdose look like?
Overdose symptoms vary depending on the individual and the drugs that are used.
Depressants (heroin, alcohol, etc.)
Stimulants (cocaine, ecstasy, etc.)
Slurred speech or inability to talk
Loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness
Shallow or stopped breathing
Blue or purple lips and fingernails
Slow, erratic, or no pulse
Shaking or seizures
Loss of consciousness
What do I do if someone has overdosed?
Call 911. This is the most important step– do it even if you're uncertain!
If the person is still conscious, make sure they stay awake, moving, and breathing.
If the person is unconscious or unresponsive, try to wake them up. If this is unsuccessful, put them in the recovery position — on their side, head tilted up slightly to open the airway — and remain with them until help has arrived.
A loved one has overdosed. How do I cope?
The tragedy of an overdose leaves close friends and family members in a shattering wake of grief, confusion, and often a sense of blame. A skilled grief counselor — or any personal counselor, if you cannot find one with this specialization — is essential to helping you process the experience, grieve, and eventually let go.
I have survived an overdose. How do I cope?
Overdose survivors can experience an immense amount of grief, guilt, and shame, and must recover emotionally in much the same way as their loved ones. If you have survived an overdose, seek strength and comfort in the support of family and close friends. Find a counselor — addiction or otherwise — who can help you recover emotionally and grow from your experience. Most importantly, seek treatment. Find the drug addiction treatment center that is right for you. Overdoses are a wakeup call, but they are always preventable — you do not have to suffer one again.