More than 63,000 Americans died in 2016 from overdoses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug overdoses kill more people than motor vehicle accidents, guns, and falls.
Almost two-thirds of drug overdose deaths involve prescription or illegal opioids. Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that synthetic opioids are linked to increases in drug overdose deaths.
What is a Drug Overdose and How Can it Kill You?
A drug or alcohol overdose happens when a person consumes a lethal or toxic amount of an addictive substance, poisoning the body. An overdose may be accidental or may be a deliberate suicide attempt.
Each class of drugs has a unique effect on the brain and body, causing death by overdose for different reasons. Not all overdose victims will experience or exhibit all the warning signs detailed below.
Narcotics are a class of drugs that relieve pain, calm the mind, dull the senses, and deliver a euphoric effect. These drugs are known as opioids, opium derivatives, and semi-synthetic substitutes. Narcotic drugs include illegal drugs like heroin, as well as prescription drugs like codeine.
When used as prescribed, these drugs effectively relieve pain and anxiety and enhance well-being. However, opioids are frequently sold on the illegal drug market, as these effects are also highly valued by recreational users.
When used other than as prescribed, opioids are extremely dangerous and can lead to abuse, addiction, and fatal overdoses. Illegally produced opioids may contain other dangerous drugs or may have a higher than expected potency, which can prove lethal to an unknowing user.
Opioids trigger the central nervous system (CNS) to slow down, which can dangerously suppress respiratory, digestive, and other functions. Sleepiness, lethargy, and serious constipation may also result. Breathing may become dangerously slow, which may result in oxygen levels insufficient to sustain bodily functions (hypoxia).
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) symptoms of opioid overdose may include:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Cold clammy skin
- Extreme drowsiness
- Slowed breathing
The DEA states the presence of three symptoms: coma, pinpoint pupils, and respiratory depression, are strong indicators of opioid poisoning.
The most dangerous effect that opioids have on the body is by severely restricting breathing. “Opioids kill people by slowing the rate of breathing and the depth of breathing,” medical toxicologist and emergency physician Andrew Stolbach of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told Science News.
An overdose of opioids can also suppress the gag reflex, which can cause a person to vomit and choke to death. This is especially dangerous when alcohol or other sedatives are used concurrently with opioids.
Naloxone is an FDA-approved medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose if administered quickly. It is currently approved for home use in emergency situations.
Unlike opioids, stimulants signal the CNS to speed up, which is why they are often called “uppers.” Stimulant drugs increase the heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and breathing. This drug class includes prescription drugs like diet aids, and illegally-produced drugs like cocaine.
When used as prescribed, stimulants are effective for the treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and narcolepsy. They help users to focus, remain alert, and stay on task. Stimulants are frequently misused by those seeking a “high,” to improve mental or physical performance, to reduce appetite, or to stay awake for an extended time period.
Research shows long-term use or misuse of stimulants may result in aggressive behavior, severe agitation, and suicidal or homicidal actions. Some stimulants have also been linked to paranoia, which may include auditory and visual hallucinations. Paranoia usually resolves when stimulant use stops.
Signs of stimulant overdose include
- Extreme headache
- Increased body temperature
- Rapid heart and pulse rate
- Chest pain
- Severe agitation
Overdose death can result from extreme dehydration, hypertension, stroke, cardiac arrest, cardiovascular collapse, seizures, convulsions, or brain damage.
Depressants, or sedative hypnotics, slow down brain activity and lower blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, and breathing. They may be prescribed to improve sleep, relieve muscle spasms, prevent seizures, and to reduce anxiety.
A person experiencing a depressant overdose may have:
- Clammy skin
- Bluish lips or fingertips
- Very shallow respiration
- Dilated pupils
- Weak and rapid pulse
- May appear to be in a coma
- Death is usually caused by respiratory failure
Alcohol Poisoning & Overdose
Alcohol is also considered a depressant. Overdose death from excessive use of alcohol is often caused by binge drinking, which means drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically happens after 4 standard drinks for women, and 5 for men in a two hour time period. It is illegal to drive in the U.S. with a BAC of 0.08 or higher.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when more alcohol is consumed than the body can metabolize, so BAC levels become toxic. Signs of alcohol poisoning often include mental confusion, vomiting, seizures, extremely slow or irregular breathing, blue-tinged skin, low body temperature, and unconsciousness.
Death from alcohol poisoning may be caused by:
- Dangerously slowed or stopped breathing and insufficient oxygen reaching the brain and other vital organ systems
- Extremely low body temperature causing cardiac arrest
- Choking due to impaired gag reflex
All drug and alcohol overdoses are a medical emergency. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, immediately call 911. If an overdose victim is not breathing, 911 operators will explain how to administer CPR.
What Factors Increase Risk of Overdose?
The risk of overdose is greatest for those misusing prescription drugs or taking illegal drugs. Combining a drug with other drugs or alcohol greatly increases the risks. It is especially dangerous to combine depressants.
The risk for an accidental overdose of a prescription medication is greater for those who:
- Take a higher or more frequent dose than prescribed
- Are taking several different medications concurrently
- Have a mental disorder
- Are children or are elderly
Risk factors for overdose from illicit drugs increase for those who:
- Don’t know the exact dose or contents of the drug
- Use intravenous drugs or street drugs
- Suffer from a mental disorder
- Are low income or homeless
- Mix drugs and alcohol
- Have a history of overdose
- Use drugs alone
For those who survive an overdose, permanent brain damage and other organ damage is possible.
Don’t take a chance with your life. There are so many resources to help you or a loved one overcome problem drug or alcohol use. Begin by talking to your doctor or an addiction specialist for guidance and resources. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website also provides helpful recovery resource information.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, BlueCrest Recovery Center can help. We take a whole-person approach to treatment, considering not only a person’s physical needs but also their emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs.
If you’re in need of assistance, please contact us at (844) 416-7060 or info@BlueCrestRC.com.
Medically Reviewed By Dr. Thomaso Skorupski, D.O.