Drug-related deaths are on the rise in the United States and have become a significant threat to public health in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 107,000 people died from overdose in 2021. This number includes accidental deaths as well as suicidal overdose deaths, and it’s more than double the number of drug-related deaths the CDC reported in 2015.
Drug overdoses are a leading cause of preventable deaths, and every year, hundreds of families and friends are left to deal with the aftermath of these tragedies. Fortunately, there are simple things anyone can do to tackle harmful stigmas and promote access to helpful information and resources for those living with addiction.
What Happens During an Overdose?
Overdoses are complex, and it’s not always clear what pushes the body beyond a high to an overdose. However, there are a handful of factors that may make an individual more vulnerable to overdosing. Mixing opioids with sedatives such as alcohol or anxiety medications, using drugs in very high doses, and relapsing after having been in detox are all associated with increased overdose risks.
When someone first takes an opioid, the drug enters their body and travels through their heart and lungs. At this point, it gets flushed with oxygen and then carried back into the heart. From there, it continues to be pumped through the body and gets plugged into the body’s opioid receptors.
Once the drug is carried to the brain, it activates dopamine production. This is what causes the individual to experience a high. Before long, the high evens out, and the individual typically begins to feel sleepy. Opioids affect the body’s systems that control breathing and sleeping, suppressing neurological signals that tell the body it’s not getting enough oxygen. The heart rate may slow, causing the individual to have sudden cardiac arrest, and the lungs may barely be working. This lack of oxygen causes brain damage if swift action isn’t taken, and the individual may begin to experience seizures.
In some cases, the overdose can include pulmonary edema, which occurs when fluid leaks into the lungs. The person may begin to foam at the mouth. Because opioids can suppress the individual’s gag reflex, the individual may choke.
Signs of an Overdose
While the individual on the verge of overdosing may not recognize what’s happening to them, there are some signs other people may spot that may indicate the need for medical assistance. Extreme drowsiness, cold hands, nausea with or without vomiting and cloudy thoughts can suggest that someone’s had too much of a substance. Slow breathing, or fewer than 10 breaths per minute, can also be a red flag. At this point, an opioid overdose kit is necessary for reversing the effects of the drug.
Becoming an Overdose Awareness Advocate
When it comes to addressing the challenges of addiction and overdose prevention, stigma is a significant barrier that can keep people from accessing helpful information and resources. This stigma is driven by stereotypes about people who use drugs such as their perceived moral failings, whether they pose a danger to those around them, and even the “type” of person who’s vulnerable to addiction.
Overdose awareness advocates play an important role in addressing these stigmas and can help those living with addiction find the confidence they need to seek professional help. Regardless of an individual’s personal experience with drug use, they can advocate for those living with addiction.
Raising Awareness Through Social Media and Participation in Community Events
For those who have a social media presence, using their various online channels can be an effective way to spark conversations on drug use and overdose. Some ideas for social media posts include directing readers to the CDC’s website to learn about the signs of overdose, learning how to obtain an opioid overdose kit, and understanding harm reduction strategies that can help with overdose prevention.
Many communities organize events that highlight overdose risks and symptoms, providing access to helpful information to those who may be living with addiction. Attending these events, donating money, and helping to raise awareness of upcoming community activities can provide necessary support and enable local leaders to continue working on behalf of those living with addiction.
Supporting Harm Reduction Efforts
Harm reduction efforts, at times controversial, may have a role in addressing preventable drug-related deaths. This approach focuses on preventing overdose and infectious disease transmission among those who use recreational drugs such as heroin. It emphasizes the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing and provides accessible health care services, including treatment for mental health and substance use. It meets people where they are to empower them to meet their goals through small, measurable, and meaningful changes.
There are numerous harm reduction strategies, including needle exchange programs, medications to manage alcohol and opioid use disorder, drug checks, supervised drug consumption, and designated driver programs. Measures such as these aim to reduce the number of tragedies related to drug or alcohol use, providing a judgment-free approach that promotes safe practices. They also seek to reduce substance use and serve as an important first step toward getting professional addiction treatment.
Ultimately, harm reduction strategies address addiction as a medical, rather than a moral, issue. Their goal: less drug-related tragedies in their communities.
Sharing Personal Stories
For those living with addiction, finding a way out can feel hopeless. Because of the significant and lasting changes the body undergoes when the individual uses substances such as alcohol or opioids, it’s very difficult to live sober without professional intervention and a strong support network. Hearing about the experiences others have had with drug use and sober living can provide encouragement for those who want to be free from addiction.
Not everyone has a personal story to share regarding addiction recovery. However, for those who do, telling others about strategies they’ve found for managing cravings, challenging emotions, and fallout from friends or family who are still using substances can be helpful.
Engaging in Policy Advocacy
Those who use recreational drugs or alcohol face disparities when it comes to accessing health care and basic human services. While some communities are actively working toward leveling the playing field and promoting access to resources, too many are protecting or even creating more barriers to care for those living with addiction.
Individuals can address overdose deaths in their communities by engaging in policy advocacy, using their voice and vote to create positive changes. Supporting policy changes related to harm reduction strategies such as safe consumption sites, access to opioid overdose kits, needle exchange programs, and community-based health care services can play key roles in reducing overdose deaths.
Supporting and Connecting with Others
Overdose prevention is a complex issue that needs a multifaceted solution, and no one can affect change on their own. Building connections with other advocates and providing practical support for those living with addiction is necessary for creating lasting changes at the community level. Linking up with nonprofit organizations and local Drug-Free Community Coalitions can amplify an individual’s voice and influence and help them direct their efforts.
Overdose prevention at the community level is possible with the help of committed advocates willing to take on harmful stigmas and use their influence to promote access to health care for those living with addiction. By working alongside others, supporting community initiatives, providing access to information, and sharing personal experiences, individuals can create positive changes in their communities.