Drug Overdose

What is a Drug Overdose?

An overdose happens when the body is overwhelmed by a drug or poison. A toxic effect occurs once the body can no longer process the amount of drug or chemical being put into it. Though the body can heal itself, sometimes death or permanent organ damage can instantly occur. 

What Role Does Tolerance Play in Overdoses?

The leading component of an overdose is a person’s tolerance level. When someone has been using and/or abusing a particular drug for a prolonged period of time, their tolerance level rises to an unsustainable point. Over time, they need to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect.

Another little-known, but potentially deadly, aspect of drug tolerance lies in a person who hasn’t taken drugs for a long period of time. In this case, their tolerance drops, which can be deadly if they decide to use again and end up taking the same amount of drugs they used before they stopped.

A person’s overdose tolerance level varies with age, weight, state of health, and how the drug was consumed, among other factors. The overdose occurs once the body has reached the limit of what it can take.

There are multiple signs that a person is overdosing. Some of the signals are obvious, while others aren’t. Let’s take a closer look at the signs of an overdose.

Signs that a person is overdosing

Signs of a drug overdose vary depending on the substance the user ingested. While many symptoms are the same across the board, it’s important to be able to recognize what is going on, in order to initiate the proper response.

It’s not always obvious when someone is overdosing. In many cases, such as opioid pain relievers and heroin, the effects of the drug can look a lot like an overdose.

A common misconception is that a person has to be obviously unconscious or in severe distress to have an overdose, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the person is so heavily under the influence of the drug that they aren’t even aware an overdose is happening.

In addition to a person being unconscious, there are several other signals of an overdose:

  • They are having a seizure.
  • They are experiencing severe head pain.
  • They are experiencing severe chest pain.
  • They are having difficulty breathing.
  • They are extremely agitated, anxious, confused or delirious.

Warning Signs Include:

  • Won’t Wake Up
    • If the person is unresponsive, try nudging them or gently pinching their arm. Whether using stimulants or depressants, if someone passes out and will not wake up, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
  • Abnormal Temperature
    • Stimulants increase temperature. If the person’s skin feels very warm to the touch or they are sweating profusely in otherwise normal conditions, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
    • Depressants (alcohol) decrease temperature.
      If the person’s skin feels cool to the touch in otherwise normal conditions, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
  • Abnormal Breathing
    • Stimulants (cocaine, Aderall) speed up breathing.
      If the person is breathing faster than usual or they seem to be short of breath, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
    • Depressants slow down breathing.
      Less than 13 breaths per minute or more than 8 seconds between breaths is considered slow breathing and is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
  • Pale Skin Color
    • Stimulants make skin flushed.
      Flushed or reddish skin is a warning sign for a drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1. 
    • Depressants make skin pale. If the person’s skin looks paler than usual, they have bluish lips or sweaty/cool skin, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.
  • Abnormal Pulse
    • Stimulants increase pulse.
      A person overdosing on a stimulant may report a racing heart or chest pains. These are warning signs for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1. Depressants decrease pulse.
    • Place the tips of your index and second fingers on their lower neck, on either side of their wind- pipe. Count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply this number by 6. If lower than 60, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. JUST CALL 9-1-1.

It’s also important to remember that it isn’t necessary for someone to be showing every symptom listed to be overdosing. Exhibiting a few symptoms, or even one, such as difficulty breathing, could be a sign of an overdose.

There’s no rulebook for handling someone who’s overdosing. It’s a nerve wracking and harrowing experience for everyone involved. Fortunately, there are actions you can take to help mitigate the damage.

Here are the steps you should take if you suspect someone is overdosing:

  • Stay by their side and keep talking to them.
  • Assure them that they’ll be okay.
  • If they are appearing unconscious, speak directly to them and try to get a response in return. One example is asking them what their name is.
  • If they appear unresponsive, place them in a recovery position (on their side) and immediately call 9-1-1.
  • Commence first-aid and follow the instructions of the 9-1-1 operator.
  • Don’t give them anything to eat.
  • Don’t give them anything to drink.
  • Don’t try to make them throw up.
  • Don’t leave the room.
  • If the person is feeling hot or cold, try adjusting the temperature in the room.

Recognizing the symptoms and knowing what to do is helpful when put into the context of whatever drug the person has overdosed on. Different drugs exhibit different symptoms.