Find out the warning signs and symptoms of a drug overdose, and learn about the different ways that hospitals can treat overdoses when they occur.
In 2017, almost one million people went to an emergency room (ER) in the U.S. for a non-fatal drug overdose. However, over 70,000 people died of a drug overdose within the same time frame.
Because ER visits for drug overdoses are so common, hospitals are very experienced in treating overdoses and preventing life-threatening complications. Overdose treatment varies significantly based on the drugs that are used, but the chances of surviving an overdose are much higher when someone receives professional emergency treatment in an ER.
What Is an Overdose?
An overdose is when you take more than a normal or recommended amount of a substance. Overdoses may be accidental, such as when children get into a parent’s medication. They may also be intentional, such as when someone makes a suicide attempt. Overdoses can be dangerous and may lead to death if the overdose is severe enough and left untreated.
Overdoses are a common occurrence in people who have a substance addiction. Using high amounts of a substance for a prolonged period often leads to tolerance. When someone has developed a tolerance, they will need higher and higher doses of a substance to obtain the same effects. This can cause someone to use too much of a drug while trying to obtain a better high.
Overdose symptoms vary significantly based on the type of drug that is used. While the symptoms of an overdose are different for each drug, some of the most common overdose symptoms include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
- Slurred speech
- Decreased responsiveness
- Snoring or gurgling breathing
- Very slow or very rapid breathing
- Slow or rapid pulse
- Blueness around the mouth or in the nail beds
- Absent breathing
If you believe someone may be having an overdose, immediately call 911 and stay with the victim until help arrives. A person’s condition can deteriorate rapidly during an overdose, so seeking emergency help is always recommended — even if they do not appear to be severely overdosing.
If you or someone you know is using a specific drug, you should be familiar with the overdose symptoms of that drug. Learn more about the overdose symptoms of certain types of drugs, including depressants like opioids and stimulants like cocaine.
What Overdose Treatment at a Hospital Could Include
The way that hospitals treat overdoses will vary based on the substance causing the overdose. Each drug or chemical has a different effect on the body, and treating these effects requires understanding what is actually causing the overdose symptoms.
The very first step of overdose treatment will always involve determining what substances are causing the overdose. Ideally, the patient or someone with them will be able to tell the hospital what was being used. However, if the person is by themselves and unable to speak coherently, the medical team will have to make an educated guess based on the symptoms. In cases where the substance is unknown, the hospital may treat multiple possibilities at the same time to ensure that the correct treatment is provided.
Hospital Overdose Treatments Can Vary
Overdose treatment depends on the substance that was used. Some common overdose treatments for certain drugs include:
- Opioid overdose: While opioid overdoses can be one of the deadliest types of overdose, they are also the easiest to treat. A medication called naloxone completely reverses the effects of opioids, almost instantly fixing the overdose. Naloxone can wear off, however, making continuous medical monitoring important.
- Benzodiazepine overdose: In limited situations, doctors use the medication flumazenil to reverse the effects of a benzodiazepine overdose. However, this sudden reversal of the overdose can cause seizures to occur. Typically, benzodiazepine overdose treatment involves addressing the symptoms that occur. This may include using a breathing machine until the symptoms wear off.
- Cocaine overdose: Cocaine overdoses are dangerous because they can overstimulate and stress multiple organs in the body, especially the heart. Cocaine overdose treatment will normally involve addressing symptoms and monitoring the heart until the drug has been eliminated from the body.
- Alcohol overdose: Alcohol overdose is common with binge drinking and can be fatal. Someone overdosing on alcohol may require a machine to breathe for them and medications to support them while alcohol levels in the blood are high.
Hospital overdose treatments normally involve a high level of monitoring. This is because complications can occur, and they must be quickly recognized and treated to prevent long-term effects.
What Happens After Overdose Treatment?
The medical care that occurs after an overdose typically includes two parts. The first part involves treating the more long-term effects of an overdose. For example, if someone overdoses on opioids and stops breathing for several minutes, the initial overdose care is technically over once the opioid is eliminated from the person’s system. However, going without breathing for several minutes could lead to brain damage that requires additional treatment following the initial overdose treatment.
The second part of post-treatment involves helping the overdose patient avoid using drugs again and experiencing another overdose. Statistics show that, compared to the average person, people who receive opioid overdose treatment in an ER are 100 times more likely to die from another opioid overdose within the next 12 months. These high risks make it important to help overdose victims avoid drug use in the future.
Getting Help and Treatment Options
Sometimes, an overdose is the wake-up call someone needs to realize they have a substance use problem. Other times, understanding the risks involved with overdoses can encourage someone to seek help. Regardless of the reason, one of the best ways to avoid a potentially fatal drug overdose is to stop using substances that can cause one.
The Recovery Village is here to help you and your loved ones to stay safe from the risks of a drug overdose. Our evidence-based approach to treatment can give you the tools and resources needed to end substance use, reduce the risk of relapse and maintain lifelong recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, our experts can help you achieve a healthier, substance-free future. Contact us today to learn more about addiction treatment programs that can work well for your recovery needs.
Vivolo-Kantor, Alana M.; Hoots, Brooke E.; et al. “Nonfatal Drug Overdoses Treated in Emerg[…] States, 2016–2017.” US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, April 3, 2020. Accessed December 22, 2021.
National Harm Reduction Coalition. “Opioid Overdose Basics.” September 1, 2020. Accessed December 22, 2021.
Victoria State Government and Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Drug overdose.” BetterHealth Channel, August 23, 2021. Accessed December 22, 2021.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Overdose.” MedlinePlus, November 30, 2021. Accessed December 22, 2021.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “ER visits for drug overdose may raise risk of later death.” MedlinePlus, November 26, 2020. Accessed December 22, 2021.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.