Since drug overdoses result in numerous adverse effects, they must be avoided. The best way to keep from overdosing is recognizing what one is, how it happens and what the signs of an overdose are.
Drug overdoses occur when too much of a drug is used within a certain time frame. Overdoses can be dangerous or even fatal. While the idea of an overdose tends to be associated with drugs like heroin or cocaine, any medication can be overdosed on. This includes seemingly “safe” medications, such as Tylenol or ibuprofen.
Article at a Glance:
- An overdose occurs when the body becomes overwhelmed by too much of a drug and cannot transmit signals from the brain to the rest of the body.
- It takes different amounts of a drug for different people to overdose.
- Signs of an overdose are slow breathing, blue lips and nails, and being very sleepy.
- In recent years, over 70,000 Americans have been dying from drug overdoses annually.
- Call 911 immediately if you suspect someone is experiencing a drug overdose.
What Is a Drug Overdose?
A drug overdose is when someone uses more of a drug or medication than is normal or recommended. Technically, this could include situations with a relatively low risk, like taking one more ibuprofen than the maximum amount listed on the bottle. However, it is normally used to refer to situations where someone has taken enough of a medication or drug to cause concerning symptoms. In these circumstances, a drug overdose is a medical emergency and can be life-threatening.
Drug Overdose Statistics
Drug overdoses are a growing problem throughout the United States, and they caused over 100,000 deaths in 2021 alone. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there are roughly seven emergency responses for each overdose death. This indicates that about 700,000 overdoses requiring emergency intervention occurred in 2021. About 75% of drug overdose deaths in 2021 were due to opioid-based drugs.
How Much Does It Take To Overdose?
Part of what makes an overdose so dangerous is the unpredictability of how much it takes to overdose. Two people can use the same amount of the same drug, but one may overdose while the other may be fine.
Factors influencing the risk of overdose include:
- The type of substance used
- How the substance was used (smoking, snorting, drinking or injecting)
- The dose of the substance used
- Whether a drug is used alone or combined with others
Less dangerous illegal drugs may be cut with stronger substances that are not easy to detect, increasing the risks of overdosing on even “safe” doses of a drug.
One important factor affecting the likelihood of overdose is tolerance. As a person regularly consumes a substance, their body adapts by reducing the impact of the drug in the body. A person with a high tolerance to drugs will often need high doses to cause an overdose, whereas a person with a low tolerance can overdose on smaller amounts of the same drug.
What Drugs Can You Overdose On?
You can overdose on almost any kind of drug, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs, vitamins and illegal drugs. It is even possible to fatally overdose on water.
Although anything can be overdosed on, addictive drugs carry an increased risk of overdose. This is because the purpose of taking an addictive drug is to get high, an effect that is stronger when larger amounts of a drug are used. Opioid drugs like heroin, morphine and oxycodone are particularly dangerous, as it can be difficult to gauge their strength. One of the most common overdose effects of opioids is that they stop your breathing.
Adderall Overdose | Alcohol Overdose | Ambien Overdose | Ativan Overdose | Cocaine Overdose | Fentanyl Overdose | Gabapentin Overdose | Heroin Overdose | Hydrocodone Overdose | Ketamine Overdose | Klonopin Overdose | Kratom Overdose | LSD Overdose | MDMA Overdose | Meth Overdose | Methadone Overdose | Oxycodone Overdose | Sleeping Pill Overdose | Trazodone Overdose | Valium Overdose | Xanax Overdose
Adderall is a stimulant that causes your body to work harder than is safe during an overdose. It is a prescription medicine and should only be used as prescribed. Any use of Adderall beyond what is prescribed could lead to an overdose. An Adderall overdose is normally treated by treating the symptoms that it causes and allowing the body to process the drug naturally.
An alcohol overdose, also called alcohol poisoning, is very serious. About 2,200 deaths from alcohol overdose occur each year. At high doses, alcohol suppresses the ability to breathe and protect your airway, causing death by asphyxiation. Alcohol overdose is treated by placing those who aren’t breathing on a life support machine that can breathe for them until the alcohol wears off.
Ambien is a sleeping medication that can suppress your ability to breathe when overdosed on. Ambien overdoses are relatively uncommon, as it is not commonly used to get high. Treatment of Ambien overdoses involves treating symptoms that develop until the drug has been metabolized.
Ativan is a benzodiazepine that can cause breathing to slow or stop during an overdose. An Ativan overdose is dangerous and requires emergency intervention. While there is a medication that can reverse the effects of benzodiazepine overdoses, this medication commonly causes seizures and is normally avoided. Treatment normally involves managing overdose symptoms until they resolve.
A cocaine overdose can be fatal, but unlike many other types of overdose, it causes harm by overstimulating the body. Cocaine increases heart rate and blood pressure, putting abnormal stress on the body. This can ultimately lead to cardiac arrest. Cocaine overdoses are treated by reducing the overstimulation the body experiences until the effects of cocaine wear off.
Fentanyl is a potent opioid that is much stronger than heroin or morphine. Fentanyl overdoses can be caused by fentanyl use, but it can also occur when fentanyl is mixed into another drug, sometimes without the knowledge of the person using it. Fentanyl overdoses are frequently fatal, but they can be almost instantly reversed with a medication called Narcan (naloxone). Even if Narcan is used, hospital treatment is still necessary.
Gabapentin is an anti-seizure medication. It is not a benzodiazepine, however, and it carries less of an overdose risk than benzodiazepines. Gabapentin overdoses are often either deliberate or occur when it is combined with other drugs. Treatment for a gabapentin overdose involves managing symptoms until Gabapentin has been metabolized. It also involves treating the effects of any other substances that were used at the same time.
Heroin is a potent opioid medication that is often associated with overdose deaths. Nearly one-third of fatal opioid overdoses involve heroin. This is partly due to the fact that heroin is often used as an IV drug, which gives it a fast and intense effect. Heroin overdoses can be reversed with Narcan, but they should also be treated in a hospital.
Hydrocodone is a prescription opioid that is normally used as a pill. Opioids are particularly prone to causing overdoses, making the risk of dying during a hydrocodone overdose much higher than many other types of overdoses. While Narcan can reverse a hydrocodone overdose temporarily, medical treatment will still be needed.
Ketamine is a less commonly used recreational drug. However, ketamine overdoses are quite dangerous. Ketamine can quickly stop breathing, leading to death if emergency medical care is not given. Treatment for ketamine overdoses involves treating symptoms until the ketamine wears off. This will happen quite quickly, but it may require life support equipment to manage.
Klonopin is a benzodiazepine often prescribed to help people with anxiety to relax. When a Klonopin overdose occurs, it can slow or stop breathing and can be dangerous to reverse. Klonopin overdoses are normally treated by treating symptoms as they occur. Life support in a hospital may be necessary to completely treat a Klonopin overdose.
Kratom is a newer drug in the United States and is harder to overdose on than many other drugs. However, fatal kratom overdoses are still possible. Kratom overdoses often involve other drugs, but a person can overdose on Kratom alone in some cases. These overdoses may be treated with Narcan, but they will also require additional medical treatment.
LSD overdoses are almost never fatal. Because the effects of LSD are primarily psychological, large doses can have an effect on the mind that makes altered perceptions of reality more intense. This could increase the chance of a bad trip, but it is less likely to cause serious health problems. If someone is experiencing health symptoms after using LSD, however, they should seek emergency medical care. This is because LSD can be cut with other substances that could cause an overdose.
MDMA, also called ecstasy, is a drug that alters the perception of reality and speeds up the normal processes of the body. MDMA overdoses can be fatal, and there is no antidote to an MDMA overdose. Treatment of this kind of overdose will primarily focus on taking care of symptoms as they occur.
Much like cocaine, meth overdoses cause increased activity of the body’s normal function, causing stress that can be too much on the heart or other organs. Meth overdoses are treated by reducing the stress it causes on organs and treating symptoms as they occur.
Methadone is an opioid medication that is often used to treat addiction to other opioids, as it acts slower and less intensely. While methadone may be safer than other opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, it is still an opioid and can still cause life-threatening symptoms when taken in large amounts. A methadone overdose can be temporarily treated with Narcan, but it will require continued treatment in a hospital.
Oxycodone is an opioid that is somewhat similar to hydrocodone. Like hydrocodone, an oxycodone overdose can be fatal, ultimately slowing or stopping your breathing. Treatment should involve immediately reversing the overdose using Narcan, followed by hospitalization for continued treatment.
Sleeping Pill Overdose
There are many different sleeping pills, and each one has varying overdose risks. Normally, sleeping pill overdoses are intentional. Treatment for sleeping pill overdoses will depend on the type of pill used, but it often consists of treating symptoms until the pills wear off.
Trazodone is a drug to treat depression, and it is not normally used to get high. Someone who has overdosed on trazodone has usually done so intentionally. Trazodone overdoses may be treated by initially trying to inactivate as much of the drug as possible. Afterward, treatment will usually be focused on managing symptoms that occur.
Overdosing on benzodiazepines like Valium can be life-threatening, as it can cause breathing to slow or stop. Valium overdose treatment can include administering a medication that quickly reverses the effects of Valium, but this can cause seizures. Typically, symptoms of Valium overdoses are treated until the Valium wears off. This may include being placed on a breathing machine temporarily.
Like Valium, Xanax is a benzodiazepine that can dangerously suppress breathing. However, Xanax can be more toxic when compared to other benzodiazepines. The treatment for Xanax overdose will be the same as for other benzodiazepines and will primarily involve treating symptoms that occur.
Drug Overdose Signs, Symptoms and Side Effects
All drug overdoses produce signs and symptoms, but the side effects of an overdose will vary based on the substances used.
- Slow, shallow or stopped breathing
- Being very sleepy, confused and unable to speak
- Blue lips and fingernails
- Snoring or making gurgling sounds while breathing
Benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety and mood disorders. These medications are calming, but they are chemically very similar to alcohol and have a suppressing effect. Signs of a benzodiazepine overdose include:
- Slow, light breathing
- Breathing that has stopped
- Decreased responsiveness
- Inability to stay awake
- Blue coloration around the lips or in the fingernail beds
- Snoring or gurgling
- Psychosis with hallucinations, delusional thinking and paranoia
- High blood pressure
Someone who has overdosed on alcohol will experience many different symptoms. The signs and symptoms linked to alcohol poisoning include:
- Trouble staying awake
- Slow or irregular breathing patterns
- Clammy skin and low body temperature
- Slowed heart rate
Drug Overdose Risk Factors
A person is at risk for overdosing if they use a drug other than how it is prescribed or use a substance that was not dispensed by a pharmacy. However, there are also risk factors and behaviors that can significantly increase the risk of an overdose occurring. These include:
- Addiction or difficulty controlling use
- IV drug use
- Use of an opioid
- Using drugs obtained from a new or unknown source
- Previously overdosing
- Mixing more than one substance
- Using a pill in a different way than ingesting it
- Using drugs after a period of abstinence
Anyone who is at risk for an overdose should consider getting professional help to stop using substances. Professional treatment can help a person achieve a more healthy lifestyle and avoid the risk of a dangerous overdose.
Drug Overdose Treatment
During an overdose, the priority should be to get the overdose victim to a hospital as soon as possible. It’s also important to keep them as safe as possible as you wait for professionals to arrive.
Emergency Treatment Protocol for Drug Overdose
When someone is overdosing, emergency treatment from bystanders should begin when the problem is first recognized. Once you have realized someone is overdosing, there are several steps you should take:
- Keep your safety in mind: If someone overdosing is aggressive or has passed out in the middle of a street, you could encounter danger trying to help. Keep this in mind and realize that professionals recommend maintaining your own safety in these circumstances.
- Place the person overdosing on their side in a safe location: Placing someone on their side protects them from choking and ensures they are safe.
- Administer Narcan if available: You will almost never know every substance someone is using. Even if they have overdosed on something else, using Narcan to reverse opioids may help. Narcan is unlikely to harm someone having any kind of overdose and will typically only help.
- Call 911: Calling 911 will summon medical assistance, and the emergency operator will be able to help provide advice and help while you are waiting.
- Give any first aid you think is reasonable: If you are trained in CPR and think that the person overdosing needs it, you should provide it. Even if you are not trained in first aid, taking reasonable steps to give first aid is always recommended.
Overdose Reversal Drugs
There are two main overdose reversal drugs: Narcan (naloxone) and Romazicon (flumazenil). Narcan is used for opioids and almost instantly reverses the effects of opioid drugs. Narcan is unlikely to cause any harmful side effects, and it can be given to someone who is unconscious. For these reasons, Narcan is almost always given to people who are overdosing, even if opioids are not the substance suspected of causing the overdose.
An important consideration with Narcan is that it wears off faster than opioids. This means that if you give someone Narcan and reverse their opioid overdose, the overdose can still return.
Romazicon reverses the effects of benzodiazepines. The problem with this antidote is that benzodiazepines suppress the risk of seizures. When the effects of benzodiazepines are abruptly removed, there is a high risk of seizures. For this reason, Romazicon is not used like Narcan is. In many cases, it is not even used for people who are having a known benzodiazepine overdose.
Drug Overdose Treatment at Home
If someone is overdosing at home, the response should be exactly the same as it would be in other situations. Trying to treat someone at home without seeking medical help can lead to fatal outcomes. By the time things get seriously out of hand, it is often too late to help.
One of the reasons people may be hesitant to seek medical treatment for overdoses is the fear of legal risks or embarrassment. However, both of these potential problems become far worse when someone overdoses and something preventable happens at home.
Accidental Overdose Is a Telltale Sign of Addiction
Those who are concerned about potentially overdosing — or those who have accidentally overdosed in the past — are likely people who are struggling with addiction. One of the key signs of addiction is the inability to control use of a substance, even when you know that it has the potential to cause harm. Signs of addiction also include:
- Becoming more withdrawn
- Changing friends and social circles
- Losing interest in activities that were previously important
- Becoming depressed
- Changing eating habits
- Altering sleep patterns
- Experiencing problems at work or school
- Experiencing new legal or financial problems
Drug Addiction Treatment
No one ever plans to have a fatal overdose, and an addiction that may cause one should be treated as soon as possible. Fortunately, professional help is available at The Recovery Village.
Our nationwide network of recovery centers includes locations in Florida, Ohio, Washington, New Jersey and Colorado. Each facility provides a variety of individualized treatment options that can help you recover from addiction and begin a healthier, substance-free future. We encourage you to contact us today to learn how we can help you achieve a life free from addiction.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Overdose.” MedlinePlus, February 18, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually.” November 17, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Minnesota Department of Health. “Drug Overdose Prevention Resources.” January 11, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.” February 16, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
NC Harm Reduction Coalition. “Overdose Prevention Program.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
Peechakara, Basil V.; Gupta, Mohit. “Water Toxicity.” StatPearls, July 3, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
U.S. Department of Justice. “What is an Opioid?” February 10, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “Stimulant and Related Medications: U.S. […]es for Use in Adults.” October 2015. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” January 6, 2015. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Sanofi-aventis U.S. LLC. “Ambien.” October 2014. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Kang, Michael; Galuska, Michael A.; Ghassemzadeh, Sassan. “Benzodiazepine Toxicity.” StatPearls, July 26, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Can you overdose or die if you use cocaine?” Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Fentanyl.” February 16, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Middleton, Owen. “Suicide by gabapentin overdose.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, September 2011. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heroin Overdose Data.” March 25, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prescription Opioid Data.” March 16, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Orhurhu, Vwaire J.; Vashisht, Rishik; et al. “Ketamine Toxicity.” StatPearls, February 7, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Clonazepam.” MedlinePlus, March 2, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Mundell, E.J. “CDC: Americans Are Dying From Kratom Overdoses.” HealthDay News, April 11, 2019. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Overbeek, Daniel L.; Abraham, Jonathan; Munzer, Brendan W. “Kratom (Mitragynine) Ingestion Requiring Naloxone Reversal.” CPC Emergency Medicine, January 4, 2019. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Haden, Mark; Woods, Birgitta. “LSD Overdoses: Three Case Reports.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, January 2020. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Ramcharan, S., Meenhorst, P.L., et al. “Survival after massive ecstasy overdose.” Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology, 1998. Accessed March 11, 2022.
National Institutes of Health. “Methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths[…]019, NIH study finds.” September 22, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2022.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Methadone overdose.” MedlinePlus, February 18, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Kripke, Daniel F. “Hypnotic drug risks of mortality, infect[…] but lack of benefit.” F1000 Research, November 12, 2018. Accessed March 11, 2022.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Trazodone overdose.” MedlinePlus, February 18, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Greenblatt, David J.; Woo, Elaine; et al. “Rapid Recovery From Massive Diazepam Overdose.” JAMA, October 20, 1978. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Isbister, Geoffrey K.; O’Regan, Luke; et al. “Alprazolam is relatively more toxic than[…]azepines in overdose.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, July 2004. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “Overdose overview.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
BMJ Best Practice. “Benzodiazepine overdose.” February 12, 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Mass.gov. “Opioid Overdose Risk Factors.” Accessed March 11, 2022.
Department of Health and Human Services. “Naloxone: The Opioid Reversal Drug that Saves Lives.” 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
Medscape. “Flumazenil (Rx).” 2022. Accessed March 11, 2022.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Drug Use and Addiction.” MedlinePlus, December 28, 2016. Accessed March 11, 2022.
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.