The word overdose probably sounds scary and for good reason. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017 alone. Fatal drug overdoses have been on the rise for years, but an overdose doesn’t always mean you die from taking drugs. In fact, understanding what an overdose is and how to react could save someone’s life.
Once you know what to look for regarding signs of drug abuse and overdose, you can take steps to seek help for yourself or someone you love.
What Is an Overdose?
An overdose occurs when your body receives too much of a specific substance and it can no longer function at a basic level. Some describe it as a “toxic” level of a substance.
While drugs and alcohol do cause changes in your body, your basic life functions typically continue to operate even when you are high. Brain activity or motor skills might not work as well, and long-continued use of substances can cause damage to organs such as the liver. But during an overdose, critical bodily functions may shut down completely or operate in a manner that is immediately dangerous to health. These functions can include breathing, consciousness and temperature regulation.
An overdose, often called OD, is not automatically fatal. In some cases, though, people may refer to the death of someone, saying “They OD’d on heroin.” This is sometimes a common term in television medical dramas. Yes, overdosing can be a cause of death, just like a heart attack can. But in many cases, when someone gets medical intervention fast enough for a heart attack, they can be saved. The same is true in overdose cases.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are many nonfatal overdoses for every fatal overdose reported.
What Does an Overdose Look Like?
The exact nature of an overdose depends on the person and the substance they have taken too much of. Opioids, including heroin, prescription painkillers and fentanyl, drive the majority of fatal overdoses in the United States. In 2016, for example, around 66 percent of all fatal drug overdoses were related to opioids.
Opioids make an overdose more likely because of how they function. They activate receptors in the brain and other areas of the body, which causes body functions to slow. As more opioids enter the system, more receptors are activated and become blocked. Eventually, the brain is no longer able to do its basic job of ensuring regular breathing, and the person may stop breathing altogether.
Once breathing stops, if the person is not attended to in a short period of time, the brain and other organs are starved of oxygen. That’s ultimately what causes someone to die of an opioid overdose in most cases.
Depressants, such as benzodiazepines, can have a similar effect. With both types of drugs, someone may appear to become groggy or incoherent, finally drifting off into a slumber from which they can’t be awakened.
Alcohol overdoses can lead to unconsciousness, but there are usually signs before this, such as vomiting, seizures or hypothermia. This is because too much alcohol actually poisons the system, and the body may react by trying to get the substance out.
The time between someone taking a number of drugs that may cause an overdose and potential fatality depends on a variety of factors, including the person’s overall health and age. Some drugs are also much faster-acting. Fentanyl, for example, can lead to a dangerous overdose much faster than even heroin.
Why Do People Overdose on Drugs or Alcohol?
Rational individuals don’t tend to purposefully chase an overdose. Some reasons individuals may overdose on drugs or alcohol are highlighted below. It’s important to know the reason behind some overdoses so you can understand if you or someone you love is at risk.
- Accidents. In many cases, overdoses are unintentional. A person may be taking more and more of a substance because their body has built up a tolerance. They need more drugs or alcohol to get the high they’re seeking. That can lead to too much in their system. They may also take drugs that have unknown substances in them, such as heroin laced with fentanyl, which can lead to an overdose. Individuals who are using increasing amounts of drugs or engaging in ever-more reckless behavior can be at risk.
- Mental health disorders. Individuals with depression or other mental health disorders may OD because they are taking too much of a substance to try to self-medicate. Their disorder may also drive them to OD on purpose. Whether their mental health disorder is caused by their substance abuse or vice versa, individuals with suicidal thoughts can be at risk of forcing their own overdose.
What to Do If Someone Has Overdosed
The first step to take if someone you know has overdosed is seeking immediate medical attention. If you find your loved one unresponsive or in medical distress, immediately call 911 and let the dispatcher know that you suspect the possibility of drugs. Provide as many details as you can and follow the operator’s instructions while waiting for EMTs to arrive.
If you suspect that you may have taken enough drugs to overdose, call for help immediately. If someone you trust is with you and they are sober, ask them to call 911. If you’re alone, call 911 and tell the operator quickly what happened and provide an address if you can.
Once you or your loved one receives medical treatment and is stabilized, it’s time to consider seeking help for drug or alcohol abuse. An overdose is a huge sign that substances have taken control of your life and that you likely need professional help for alcohol or drug addiction.
Don’t wait for another overdose to occur. If you’re lucky enough to survive the ordeal, seek help. Call FHE Health today at (833) 596-3502 for immediate assistance.