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Overdose Prevention

One of the most severe dangers of drug addiction is a drug overdose, which can be fatal. Since 1999, more than 932,000 [1] Americans have died from a drug overdose. And in 2021 alone, the U.S. surpassed 100,000 overdose deaths [2].

While recovering completely from drug abuse or addiction is the most desirable outcome, a more immediate concern may be preventing an overdose.

This page provides vital information for people (and their loved ones) who are dealing with drug addiction. Individuals residing in Orange County, California—or anywhere else—will benefit from learning about overdose prevention.

Overdose Prevention

One of the most severe dangers of drug addiction is a drug overdose, which can be fatal. Since 1999, more than 932,000 [1] Americans have died from a drug overdose. And in 2021 alone, the U.S. surpassed 100,000 overdose deaths [2].

While recovering completely from drug abuse or addiction is the most desirable outcome, a more immediate concern may be preventing an overdose.

This page provides vital information for people (and their loved ones) who are dealing with drug addiction. Individuals residing in Orange County, California—or anywhere else—will benefit from learning about overdose prevention.

What Is a Drug Overdose?

Alcohol, over-the-counter, prescription, and illegal drugs can cause harm if someone takes too much of them. When this happens, it’s called a drug overdose.

Taking a toxic/poisonous amount of a drug—i.e., more than the average or recommended amount—may be either accidental or intentional. In either case, it’s a drug overdose.

An overdose can result in harmful symptoms and serious medical complications, including death. For this reason, a drug overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

Drug Overdose Statistics

These statistics paint a picture [4] of the prevalence and type [1] of drugs most frequently involved in overdose deaths and some of the circumstances around these deaths:

  • In 2020, upwards of 91,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths increased by 31% from 2019 (21.6 per 100,000) to 2020 (28.3 per 100,000).
  • Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone)—are the primary driver of drug overdose deaths. 82.3% of opioid-involved overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids. Even prescribed opioids contribute to opioid overdoses each year.
  • Opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).
  • More than 80% of overdose deaths involved opioids, and most of these deaths specifically involved illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMFs). IMFs put people at an increased risk of overdose death.
  • Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine (alone or in combination) were involved in nearly 85% of drug overdose deaths in 24 states and the District of Columbia from January–June 2019.
  • In more than 3 out of every five overdose deaths, there was at least one potential opportunity for the person to receive medical care before the fatal overdose; or for people nearby to implement life-saving actions when the fatal overdose occurred.
  • Among all the people who died of a drug overdose, one-quarter had a documented mental health diagnosis.
Overdose Prevention

Drug Overdose Symptoms: How to Know if You or a Loved One is Overdosing

A wide range of signs and symptoms can appear with a drug overdose—and each person will respond uniquely. The severity of drug overdose symptoms depends on a variety of factors, including:

Specific symptoms of drug overdose (including alcohol poisoning) are very common. These may include [3]:

  • Drowsiness and confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty walking
  • Visual disturbances
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Severe stomach pain or abdominal cramps
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Being unresponsive yet awake
  • Having a limp body
  • Experiencing seizures
  • Tremors or convulsions
  • Agitation or paranoia
  • Aggression or violence
  • Erratic or slow pulse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Shallow or erratic breathing
  • Not breathing at all
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Gurgling or choking sounds
  • Snoring deeply 
  • Having blue fingernails or lips
  • Pale or clammy face
  • Loss of consciousness

If someone has tried all of the suggestions and still cannot get regular sleep or can’t seem to stop drinking – they should seek help. Mental health professionals can help people achieve a peaceful sleep and manage their alcohol use. There are more advanced solutions medical professionals can suggest to help a person recover from poor sleeping patterns.

Risk Factors for Drug Overdose

What are the risk factors for a drug overdose? And what determines whether the symptoms will be mild, moderate, or life-threatening?

A person’s risk of overdose increases when they take more than one drug/substance at a time. It also increases if their body is not used to taking the substance, so its tolerance is low. These are common risk factors.

Risk Factors for OTC & Prescription Drug Overdose

Several factors can increase the risk [5] of an accidental over-the-counter or prescription drug overdose. These include:

Improper storage of drugs. When drugs are improperly sealed or stored, they can be discovered by small children who (out of curiosity) tend to put things in their mouths. This can result in an accidental overdose.

Not following dosage instructions. Adults, and children, may accidentally overdose on medication if they don’t correctly follow the instructions for its use. Taking a higher dose than is recommended—or at shorter intervals—can lead to an overdose of a drug that, when handled correctly, is perfectly safe.

A history of drug abuse or addiction. A person who intentionally misuses prescription drugs puts themselves at risk of a drug overdose—especially if this happens often and they become addicted to the drug. This risk increases if the person uses multiple drugs or mixes them with alcohol.

A history of mental disorders. Those who suffer from mental illnesses can be at greater risk for an OTC or prescription drug overdose—especially if the psychological symptoms are not being treated. Depression and suicidal thoughts, for instance, can be overdose triggers.

Risk Factors for OTC & Prescription Drug Overdose

The risk factors for overdosing on illicit/illegal drugs—including illegally obtained prescription drugs—overlap with the risk factors for an accidental overdose of over-the-counter or legitimate prescription drugs. There are, however, certain risk factors that are unique to illicit drug use.

1. Age & physical health.

A person’s age and physical health impact their body’s ability to process drugs. Older people and those using drugs for longer are at increased risk for fatal overdose.

If a person has been sick, has an infection, or has a compromised immune system, they are at higher risk of overdose because their body is weakened. Similarly, not eating well, failing to get sufficient sleep, or being dehydrated, also increases the risk of overdose.

Compromised liver and lung health also increases the risk of a drug overdose. When the liver doesn’t work well, it can’t process alcohol and drugs as effectively—which leads to a build-up of medicines in the body. And when the lungs aren’t working well, they can’t replenish the body’s oxygen supply as quickly—which is essential to survive an overdose.

2. Tolerance for the substance.

Tolerance is the body’s ability to process a certain quantity of a drug. Low tolerance means that the person’s body can only process a small amount of a drug. Having a high or increased tolerance means the body has learned how to process more significant amounts of the drug—so it takes a more substantial quantity to feel the drug’s effects.

The amount of a drug that a long-time user needs to feel the drug’s desired effects (i.e., to “get high”) is a lot greater than for a newer user. If a new user takes the same amount as the long-time user, they are at risk for overdose.

Most importantly, tolerance can decrease when someone breaks from using a drug. They may, for instance, have been in a drug treatment program, hospital, or jail. When they return to using, their tolerance will be much lower than before the break—hence, they could be at higher risk of an overdose.

Tolerance can also be affected by using drugs in a new or unfamiliar environment. In such a case, the person may be at a higher risk for overdose.

3. Mixing drugs.

Most fatal overdoses are the result of the simultaneous use of multiple drugs. When two or more drugs are taken together, they can interact in ways that increase their overall effect. For instance, many overdoses happen when people mix prescription opioids or heroin and alcohol with benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, or Klonopin. 

Speedballing (mixing cocaine and heroin) is another common—and hazardous—drug combination. While combining a stimulant with a depressant may make intuitive sense to counterbalance their different effects, the mixture doesn’t reduce the risk of overdose—people who speedball are at a higher risk of overdose than people who use heroin or cocaine alone.

4. Quality of the drug.

Quality refers to how pure and robust a drug is. The content and purity of street drugs (often purchased illegally from strangers) are always unpredictable—because such drugs are often “cut” with other drugs or substances that can be toxic.

It’s generally impossible to tell how pure a drug is simply by looking at it. And because purity levels are frequently changing, a person may do a shot/hit that’s a lot stronger than what they were expecting or used to—which puts them at risk of an overdose.

The same is valid for prescription drugs. Even if a person knows the contents and dosage of a pill, they may be unaware of the relative strength of similar types of medication. Oxycontin, for instance, is not the same as Vicodin—even though both are in the opioid family. Assuming the strength of one prescription drug to be identical to another can increase the risk of overdose.

5. Using alone vs. with others.

Using drugs alone increases the chance of a fatal overdose because there is no one else there to call for help or take care of the person if they overdose.

6. Modes of ingesting the drug.

There are many methods of using drugs, which include:

  • Swallowing
  • Snorting
  • Intravenous injection
  • Intramuscular injection
  • Skin-popping (injecting just under the skin)
  • Plugging (aka “booty bumping”: drug-water solution into the rectum)

An overdose is possible via any of these methods if the person ingests enough of the drug in a short period.

Methods that deliver the drug more quickly to the brain (such as intravenous injection and smoking) are more likely to create a big rush placing the individual at higher risk of overdose.

Also, when a person switches to a new drug or a new mode of administration—different from what they are used to—it may be harder to anticipate the effect and choose an appropriate dosage. This uncertainty increases their risk of overdose.

7. Previous non-fatal overdose.

When a person has already experienced a nonfatal overdose—at some point in their past—this increases the risk of a fatal overdose in the future. This is because experiencing a nonfatal overdose is likely to weaken or damage the body, even though the person survived the overdose. This physical weakening, in turn, places them at higher risk of a fatal overdose.

Preventative Measures for Drug Overdoses

The best methods for helping to prevent an overdose involve reducing or eliminating opportunities for an accidental overdose—or triggers for an intentional overdose.

So, for instance, the most effective way of preventing an overdose is, of course, not to abuse over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal drugs.

And if a person has a drug addiction, the best course of action is to enroll in a detox and recovery program. Once the habit has been resolved, the risk of an accidental or intentional drug overdose will dramatically decrease.

Tips on How to Avoid a Drug Overdose

Aside from avoiding drugs of any kind unless prescribed by a doctor, other tips on how to prevent an OTC or prescription drug overdose include:

  • Keep all medicines locked away in a safe and secure place that’s out of reach of children.
  • Always tell your doctor or another health professional if you’ve previously had an overdose.
  • If you use prescription drugs, be sure to use them only as directed by your doctor. Do not combine any medications without asking your doctor if it’s safe. You should also avoid mixing alcohol with prescription drugs.
  • Don’t keep medications that you no longer need. Instead, throw them away or return them to the pharmacist.

As mentioned above, the best way to avoid overdosing on illegal drugs is not to use them in the first place. If you do use them, follow these guidelines for preventing a drug overdose [7]:

  • Use only one drug at a time, or use less of each drug.
  • Reduce the amount of every drug being taken.
  • Use less at first, especially if you are using a new product.
  • Understanding those specific ways of taking drugs can be riskier than others. Be mindful that injecting and smoking can mean increased risk because the substance gets to your brain very quickly, increasing the likelihood of using an amount that can severely harm you.
  • Be careful when changing modes of administration because you may not be able to handle the same amount.
  • Have a friend with you who knows what drugs you’ve taken and can call for help in an emergency. Or call someone you trust and have them check up on you regularly.
  • Develop an overdose plan with your friends or partners. And leave the door unlocked or slightly ajar.
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with heroin/pills—a dangerous combination.
  • Use less if you’ve been sick, lost weight, or have been feeling weak or under the weather—as this can affect your tolerance.
  • Always test the strength/purity of the drug before you do the whole amount.
  • Try to buy from the same dealer every time so you can better understand what you’re getting. And talk with others who have purchased from the same dealer.
  • Be careful when switching from one type of opioid pill to another.
  • Have a loaded syringe or nasal naloxone (Narcan) ready—for use by your friend/partner or yourself.
  • If you have asthma, bring your inhaler, and tell your friends where it is.
  • Drink lots of water or other fluids.

First Aid for a Drug Overdose

In the case of a suspected drug overdose:

  1. Do your best to stay calm.
  2. Call 911 for an ambulance.
  3. If the person is unconscious yet still breathing, place them gently on their side in the recovery position. Ensure their airway remains open by tilting their head back and lifting their chin.
  4. Check to breathe and monitor their condition until medical help arrives.
  5. Do not try to make the person vomit.
  6. Do not give the person anything to eat or drink.
  7. Keep any pill containers you can find to take to the hospital.

Medical Treatments for Drug Overdose

General treatment strategies that healthcare providers may use in the case of a drug overdose include:

  • Clearing the person’s airway or inserting a breathing tube if there is a problem with breathing.
  • Inducing vomiting to remove the substance from the stomach quickly.
  • Pumping the person’s stomach to remove the substance from the stomach.
  • Giving the person activated charcoal, which can absorb the drug in the digestive tract and help to eliminate it from the body safely.
  • Give the person intravenous fluids to help speed up their body’s drug removal.
  • Administering an antidote for certain types of drug overdose. For example, the drug naloxone (aka Narcan) can help reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.

What Is Naloxone (Narcan)?

Naloxone [6] is an opioid antagonist—a medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. So, Naloxone can be used to reverse an overdose of opioids such as heroin, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, oxycodone (OxyContin), and hydrocodone (Vicodin).

Naloxone can quickly and effectively restore normal breathing to a person whose breathing has slowed down dangerously or stopped because of an opioid overdose.

Naloxone can be given as a nasal spray (e.g., Narcan), or it can be injected into the veins, into the muscle, or under the skin.

It’s always a good idea for loved ones who struggle with opioid addiction to have naloxone nearby. People can administer naloxone to help reverse the effects of the drug and stop an overdose. However, even if Naloxone has been successfully administered, friends of the person who has overdosed should still call 911 immediately.

Support for Drug Addiction Recovery

The best way to prevent drug overdose is to recover from the addiction that’s fueling the abuse of the substance and the dangers that come with this destructive habit. It is essential to seek a treatment center that uses evidence-based methods to help people recover from substance use disorders. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, Southern California Sunrise Recovery Center can help. 

Our addiction treatment centers in Orange County, California, are dedicated to healing body, mind, and soul; and offer professionally monitored detoxification and residential rehab programs for people recovering from drug addiction.

Patients can access the best medical and holistic treatments at all our locations. Our programs have been designed to deliver a profoundly nourishing and peaceful retreat that gives clients a break from everyday life’s triggers and temptations.

Our team of doctors, therapists, and counselors is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They have the skills to support you or a loved one through even the most challenging addictions; and help you create a new healthy, joyful life.

Questions or comments? Please feel free to contact us.

References & Resources

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