How Can a Drug Overdose End up Deadly?

More than 63,000 Americans died in 2016 from a drug overdose. 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.

Do you need more information about a drug addiction treatment program? Call us today at 888.292.9652.

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 Overdose: Signs and Symptoms

Narcotics are a class of drugs that relieve pain, calm the mind, dull the senses, and deliver a euphoric effect. When used as prescribed, these drugs effectively relieve pain and anxiety and enhance well-being. However, 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
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Slowed breathing

The DEA states the presence of three symptoms: coma, pinpoint pupils, and respiratory depression, are strong indicators of opioid poisoning.

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.

Stimulants Overdose: Signs and Symptoms

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.

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

  • Agitation
  • Extreme headache
  • Increased body temperature
  • Rapid heart and pulse rate
  • Chest pain
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe agitation
  • Convulsions

Overdose death can result from extreme dehydration, hypertension, stroke, cardiac arrest, cardiovascular collapse, seizures, convulsions, or brain damage.

Depressants: Usage and Signs of Overdosing

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
  • Disorientation
  • May appear to be in a coma
  • A respiratory failure resulting in death

Alcohol Poisoning and 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. Alcohol poisoning occurs when more alcohol is consumed than the body can metabolize, so BAC levels become toxic. Signs of alcohol poisoning typically include mental confusion, vomiting, seizures, extremely slow or irregular breathing, blue-tinged skin, low body temperature, and unconsciousness.

Death from alcohol poisoning can happen due to:

  • Dangerously slowed or stopped breathing and insufficient oxygen reaching the brain and other vital organ systems
  • Extremely low body temperature, causing cardiac arrest
  • Choking as a result of impaired gag reflex
  • Seizures

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 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 of 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.

Get Substance Abuse Help at BlueCrest Recovery Center

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 today at 888.292.9652.

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