Drug Overdose
Awareness & Prevention

Table of Contents

Nearly 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019. That’s an increase of 5% from 2018. 1

From Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Jim Morrison to Prince and more – drug overdoses have claimed the lives of many talented and well-loved celebrities. While these famous deaths are the rock n’ roll lifestyle fatalities that make the headlines, a drug overdose can happen to anyone. 

Drug overdoses are a serious health issue and a risk for anyone who uses drugs – whether by prescription or recreationally. It’s critical to understand what a drug overdose is, why it occurs and what happens in the body when someone overdoses.

If someone you care about is using drugs, you may be worried about their risk of overdosing and wondering how you can help them. It’s essential to know how to react in this medical emergency, as this knowledge may save their life. 

Keep reading to learn more about drug overdoses, how they happen and a few other very important things you should know. 

What Is A Drug Overdose?

An overdose happens when a toxic amount of a drug overwhelms the body and cannot be processed. 2  Depending on the type of drug taken, the symptoms of the overdose may vary widely. 

A drug overdose can be accidental or intentional. Sometimes a person who is suicidal may take a fatal amount of drugs as a way of ending their life. In other situations, the overdose is accidental and a result of someone accidently taking too much of a drug. 

It’s not always easy to discern the symptoms of a drug overdose and many people may not realize that are experiencing an overdose when it happens. Also, since the person overdosing is heavily under the influence, they may not know what is going on or be able to call for help. 

A drug overdose is a serious emergency and requires immediate medical treatment. 

What Drugs Do People Overdose On?

According to a 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 34 million people in the USA regularly abuse drugs. 3

What are the typical types of drugs that people overdose on? Here are a few of the most common drugs that are involved in overdoses:


A depressant is any type of drug that affects the central nervous system. This includes benzodiazepines, alcohol and opioids. When a drug is a depressant to the central nervous system, it lowers blood pressure and body temperate and can also slow breathing and heart rate. 

Moderate amounts of these drugs cause the user to feel calm and euphoric, but too much can be dangerous. Which the dosage is too high, depressants can lead to respiratory failure, coma or death.4


70% of the 0.5 million yearly worldwide drug-related deaths can be attributed to opioids, with more than 30% of those deaths caused by overdose.5
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Opioids are one of the substances that are most dangerous for overdoses, due to the way they function. Opioids are extracted from poppy seeds (or made with synthetic compounds with similar properties) and they interact with opioid receptors in the brain. 

Opioids, such as fentanyl, tramadol and morphine, are commonly used for the treatment of severe pain.6  They are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a healthcare provider. However, if opioids become an addiction, misuse can lead to overdose.

An opioid overdose is dangerous because it affects the part of the brain that regulates breathing. It can lead to a slowing or stopping of breathing – and the person having the overdose will go into oxygen starvation. This will eventually stop the vital organs such as the brain and the heart, which will lead to unconsciousness, coma and then death.

An opioid overdose is very dangerous, because within 3-5 minutes without oxygen, brain damage will start to occur. 


An alcohol overdose occurs when you drink more alcohol than your body can safely process. Many people don’t think about alcohol when drug overdoses are mentioned, but it is possible to overdose on alcohol and it is considered a depressant. 

Generally, the body can process around one unit of pure alcohol per hour. However, if you consume more than this, the alcohol builds up in the body and you won’t be able to metabolize it fast enough. This is usually the result of binge drinking. 

The accumulation will spread throughout the body and will lead to an alcohol overdose, which is also known as alcohol poisoning. Some of the typical symptoms of alcohol poisoning include vomiting, mental confusion, seizures, slow breathing, hypothermia and pale or blueish skin. 


Fatal stimulant overdoses have been rising in the USA over the last decade. Mortality rates have increased by 29% between 2010-2015 and 51% from 2016-2017.7
In a stimulant overdose, the effect is almost the opposite of a depressant. Sometimes a stimulant overdose can be referred to as “overamping.” 8

A stimulant drug, such as ecstasy, speed or cocaine, will raise the heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure and speed up breathing. This can potentially cause a fatal heart attack, seizure or stroke.

Some of the typical symptoms of a stimulant overdose can also include teeth grinding, tremors, insomnia, convulsions, chest pains or a tightening of the chest or nausea. Panic, anxiety and paranoia can also be symptoms. 

Stimulant overdose can also lead to seizures. This is because the brain is full of electrical activity. The simulant creates excessive electrical activity in the brain, which can lead to a “misfire” which will result in a convulsion or a seizure.9  

Are There Factors That Put People At Risk Of A Drug Overdose?

A drug overdose can happen to anyone who takes too much of a drug. However, there are certain conditions and factors that can increase the risk of the overdose. 

Some of the factors that put people at a higher risk of overdose include: 

Social isolation. (Statistics are showing that COVID-19 pandemic quarantines increase the risk of drug overdose.10)

Other health problems also affect the risks of a drug overdose. For example, if someone has other heart problems such as high blood pressure or heart disease, they are at a higher risk for a stimulant-related overdose heart attack or stroke. 

If someone is sick or has a weakened immune system, they are at a higher risk for overdose because their body is weakened. Also, the effects of a long term disease such as HIV or hepatitis can wear down the body and put someone more at risk for an overdose. 

If someone smokes or has asthma or emphysema or another type of respiratory condition, this can make them more likely to suffer from an opioid overdose.11

Another risk factor is the length of time someone has been taking a particular drug. The body adapts over time and needs more of the same drug to feel high. So, someone who has been using a drug for a long time is more likely to take too much, in an attempt to feel an impact.12 

Finally, another major factor is whether the person has had a previous overdose. Once someone has had one overdose, they are more likely to have another. The likelihood increases with each overdose.

What Are The Signs That Somebody Is Overdosing? 13

Someone overdoses on opioids approximately every 11 minutes. 14

If someone is overdosing on drugs, it’s very important to get them medical care as soon as possible. If you act quickly, you may be able to save their life. But how do you know how to recognize an overdose? 

If someone is having a drug overdose, the following physical symptoms may occur:

If you witness someone with these symptoms, it is important to seek medical help immediately. The sooner they can get medical help, the better the chances of effectiveness of the drug overdose treatment. 

Are All Overdoses Fatal?

A drug overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention. However, an overdose isn’t necessarily fatal. If the person overdosing can get treatment quickly, there is a chance that their life may be saved. 

For example, when the drug Naloxone (also known as Narcan) is administered quickly, it can overturn an overdose. If you are able to get the Narcan into the person’s system in time, they can be saved from a potentially fatal opioid overdose. 

Whether or not someone dies from an overdose can also depend on which state they are in, as the mortality rate and quality of medical care differs wildly across the country. The highest death rate is in West Virginia, with 51.8 deaths per 100,000 total population. The lowest death rate is in South Dakota, with 6.9 deaths per 100,000 total population.15

What Is The Treatment For An Overdose?

Only 3 out of 10 people who overdose on opioids and survive actually seek medical treatment for their addiction.16
The treatment for a drug overdose depends on the situation and the type of drug that was used. However, generally the healthcare provider will do some or all of the following:17

In some situations, antidote drugs might be administered. For example, the drug naloxone (Narcan) can help to reverse the effects of a opioid overdose. 

It works by removing the opioids from the receptors in the brain, and overturning their depressive effects. It can be administered as a nasal spray or as an injection.

What Are The Long Term Effects Of A Drug Overdose?

Even if someone recovers from a drug overdose, there can still be long term effects that may affect them for the rest of their lives. When someone overdoses, their body is poisoned. They can damage the heart, brain and other organs.

Sometimes an overdose can cause what is known as a toxic brain injury.18 This is a term that refers to damage of the white matter of the brain, caused by repeated oxygen deprivation. This damage can negatively affect brain function and can cause amnesia, short term memory loss and disorientation.

The damage can also cause a loss of the senses such as hearing or vision or an impairment in spoken or written communication. Survivors of drug overdoses may also develop long term physical problems, such as loss of coordination or control over their bodily functions. They may experience nerve damage and reduction in the ability to use their limbs. In some severe cases, this can even result in paralysis. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who has survived an overdose will have lasting brain damage. However, there is definitely a risk of long term effects which increases with every overdose.  

How Do You Prevent A Drug Overdose?

The best way to prevent drug overdose is to reduce exposure to drugs, prevent misuse and treat drug use disorder.

Improving the way opioids are prescribed as painkillers via clinical guidelines can ensure patients have safe access to pain treatment without the risk of misuse.19 The CDC has created guidelines to improve the way opioids are prescribed for chronic pain. This especially applies to when opioids are used to treat pain that lasts longer than three months.20
Quitting drugs is the best way to prevent an overdose.21 An addiction treatment program can help someone learn to manage their drug usage and withdraw safely.

What Should You Do Is Someone Is Overdosing?

If you suspect an overdose, the most important thing to do is to call 911 immediately and get the person immediate medical help. 

Don’t worry about getting in legal trouble, just call. Many states have a “Good Samaritan Law” that legally protects the person who suffers from the overdose, as well as the person who calls 911 to report the emergency.

In the case of a suicidal intentional drug overdose, you can get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. You can call the hotline after calling the ambulance and they can offer support and guidance. 

If someone is unresponsive and you know they have taken drugs, don’t assume they are simply asleep. Always call an ambulance if you suspect they might have overdosed – you may save their life. 

If you live with someone who you suspect may be at risk for an opioid drug overdose, you can keep Narcan in your home so you will be ready to administer it if needed. If the overdose is caused by a stimulant, Narcan won’t do anything. However, it won’t hurt – so if you are in doubt it’s worth using it just in case. 

While the ambulance is on the way, you can encourage hydration if the person is conscious and try to keep them calm. If they are having seizures, make sure there is nothing around them that can hurt them and nothing in their mouth. 

If you have any questions about drug overdose or how to help a loved one who is struggling with drug addiction, please contact us at any time. 


  1. Ellis, M. E. (2020, February 25). Drug Overdose: Definition, Treatment, Prevention, and More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/drug-overdose#prevention
  2. What Is an Overdose? (2020, September 01). Retrieved from https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/what-is-an-overdose/
  3. 2017 NSDUH Annual National Report: CBHSQ Data. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report
  4. Overdose: What Is It and How Does It Happen? (2020, September 18). Retrieved from https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/overdose/
  5. Opioid overdose. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/opioid-overdose
  6. Opioid Overdose. (2020, August 20). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/opioidoverdose.html
  7. Stimulant overdoses rising in the U.S. (2020, February 21). Retrieved from https://www.pharmacist.com/article/stimulant-overdoses-rising-us
  8. What is Overamping? (2020, August 31). Retrieved from https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/stimulant-overamping-basics/what-is-overamping/
  9. Responding to Stimulant Overamping. (2020, September 01). Retrieved from https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/stimulant-overamping-basics/responding-to-stimulant-overamping/
  10. Katz, J., Goodnough, A., & Sanger-katz, M. (2020, July 15). In Shadow of Pandemic, U.S. Drug Overdose Deaths Resurge to Record. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/15/upshot/drug-overdose-deaths.html
  11. Overdose Risks & Prevention. (2020, September 01). Retrieved from https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/opioid-od-risks-prevention/
  12. Overdose Risks & Prevention. (2020, September 01). Retrieved from https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/opioid-od-risks-prevention/
  13. Harlow, K. (2020, January 30). Long Term Effects of Overdoses on the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.thefix.com/long-term-effects-overdoses-brain
  14. Opioid Overdose Emergency: NARCAN® (naloxone) Nasal Spray. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.narcan.com/patients/what-is-an-opioid-overdose-emergency/
  15. Drug Overdose Mortality by State. (2020, April 29). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/drug_poisoning_mortality/drug_poisoning.htm
  16. Larochelle, M. R., Clinical Addiction Research and Education Unit at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, Bernson, D., Projects, O. O., Land, T., Stopka, T. J., . . . Volkow, N. D. (n.d.). Medication for Opioid Use Disorder After Nonfatal Opioid Overdose and Association With Mortality. Retrieved from https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M17-3107
  17. Ellis, M. E. (2020, February 25). Drug Overdose: Definition, Treatment, Prevention, and More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/drug-overdose#treatment
  18. Harlow, K. (2020, January 30). Long Term Effects of Overdoses on the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.thefix.com/long-term-effects-overdoses-brain
  19. Improve Opioid Prescribing. (2019, October 30). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/prevention/prescribing.html
  20. Secretary, H. O., & General, O. O. (2019, February 12). Opioid Overdose Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/opioids-and-addiction/opioids-overdose-prevention/index.html
  21. Ellis, M. E. (2020, February 25). Drug Overdose: Definition, Treatment, Prevention, and More. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/drug-overdose#prevention