Opioid Overdose: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

Opioid addiction and subsequent overdoses are one of the leading epidemics currently facing the United States. It is a crisis that truly knows no bounds, with individuals from every race, religion, gender, age, and socioeconomic background feeling the devastating impacts of this modern plague.

Though this problem is on a national scale, some areas of the country are facing its full wrath. Take Ohio, for example. In 2004, it is estimated that opioids accounted for 429 deaths across the state. Compared to the latest data from 2016, those numbers have escalated to over 4,000 overdose deaths annually. This staggering figure accounts for over 86 percent of all Ohioan deaths that year.

When most people think of opioids, the first thing that comes to their mind are white prescription painkiller pills. The true issue with these prescriptions drugs lies in their accessibility, quantity, and the high likelihood that users will transition to something cheaper and more potent. As surprising as it may seem, prescription drug overdoses are actually down across the nation. Users are transitioning to heroin or newer, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its nefarious cousin, the elephant tranquilizer known as carfentanil. In 2016 alone, fentanyl was responsible for over half of all overdose fatalities in the Buckeye State. These numbers are estimated to increase in the coming years.

With opioid use more prevalent than ever, it’s vital that everyone be able to identify just what an opioid overdose looks like, and how to best get friends, neighbors, and loved ones the medical attention they require in these trying times.

Opioid Overdose | Opioid Overdose Treatment, Signs, & Symptoms

Opioid overdose symptoms are often tied to respiration in some form or another. This is due to the fact that the drugs themselves act upon the part of the brain that affects this system.

Any and all abnormalities in breathing should not be taken lightly. In addition, some interconnected symptoms may also develop during an overdose. Because breathing is limited, not enough oxygen finds its way to vital organs and muscular structures. Thus, an individual may feel weaker, less alert, and lethargic.

Loss of consciousness is a very real possibility as well—it is critical to seek out medical attention before such an outcome occurs. As previously mentioned, lack of proper circulation of oxygenated blood, known as hypoxia, can lead to disastrous complications in the short term. Plus, if enough time passes before treatment, there is always the potential of life-altering consequences related to irreparable brain and nervous system damage.

When attempting to identify whether someone is truly experiencing an opioid overdose, it can be helpful to remember three key signs:

1) Unconsciousness: the individual does not exhibit motor functions and does not react to stimulus.

2) Nearly imperceptible pupils: be on the lookout for “pinpoint pupils.” If the eye is dominated by the iris with little to no sign of the pupil, then the individual may be overdosing.

3) Hypoventilation: as the name implies, this is the exact opposite of the more colloquial “hyperventilation”. Here, victims have slowed respiration rates and their lungs do not completely expand and contract. Keep an eye out for minimal chest rising and falling.

Observed in conjunction, these three telltale signs are collectively known by experts as the ‘opioid overdose triad.’ Understanding the triad now can greatly heighten one’s ability to recognize it in life-threatening situations.

Additional warning signs may include:

  • Vomiting or prolonged nausea
  • Inability to speak or only speaking in garbled words or phrases
  • Faint heartbeat
  • Limp extremities
  • Paleness in the face 
  • Clammy skin
  • Purple or blue fingernails and lips

Never assume that because someone is experiencing just one or none of the usual signs that an overdose is not taking place. Always err on the side of caution, and use proper judgment to determine if presented with disconcerting drug reactions. A timely reaction may be the difference between life and death.

In many cases, non-fatal opioid overdoses are more common than fatal ones. However, this shouldn’t be misunderstood as a way to downplay the seriousness of such circumstances. It is intended as encouraging news for those in a situation where they are helping an overdose victim. It proves that intervention and assistance matter.

By now, you may have heard of the opioid antagonist, naloxone. Whether someone is overdosing on prescription pills or fentanyl — though these particularly nasty opioid variants may require multiple doses — this anti-overdose drug is meant to bring victims back from the brink of death. Also known by the brand Narcan, naloxone functions to block the fatal effects of opioids. Think of it as a buffer, not an antidote. Once an overdose victim is stabilized by naloxone, they can be safely transported to an emergency center to seek true medical treatment from trained professionals.

Still, many law enforcement departments and EMTs are receiving training in administering naloxone at ground zero. Some counties across the United States even provide access to opioid users themselves as an overdose deterrent. Every weapon in the arsenal must be used to combat the opioid overdose epidemic — and knowledge is one of the greatest tools of all.

The opioid epidemic touches people in every corner of the United States. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder involving opioids, alcohol or other drugs, hope and healing are closer than you think. The Recovery Village has helped countless people break the cycle of addiction and find a fulfilling life in sobriety. Reach out to an intake coordinator at The Recovery VIllage today to get started. 

Opioid Overdose: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment
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