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Article Summary

How Does A Drug Overdose Occur?

If you have been struggling with drug abuse and addiction, it is highly likely that you may overdose on your drug of choice. In many cases, these overdose episodes tend to happen accidentally as a result of different reasons. Some of the common reasons people overdose include:

  • Combining different substances of abuse, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines
  • Taking a stronger drug dose than their bodies are used to
  • Taking regular doses of a drug after their tolerance has gone down

Even so, some people can also overdose intentionally - such as those who are trying to commit suicide by taking drugs of abuse in excess. Still, most of these cases tend to be accidental.

That said, you should treat an overdose as a medical emergency. This means that you need to provide yourself or the individual who was overdosing with prompt medical attention. This is the safest way to prevent an overdose from creating serious health effects like death.

In seeking help, you should not fear any legal repercussions. This is because some states - including DC (the District of Columbia) - have passed Good Samaritan laws designed to protect both those who suffer an overdose as well as anyone who calls an emergency responder or 911 to report such an emergency.

But exactly how does a drug overdose occur?

Understanding Drug Overdose

Depending on the drug that you have taken, the overdose symptoms will vary greatly. To this end, it might not always be easy for you to identify the overdose symptoms from abusing opioid drugs. This is because the effects of abusing these drugs are quite similar to those of overdosing on them.

As such, you might not even realize that you are overdosing - particularly if you are still heavily under the effects and influence of a drug. In these cases, the overdose might come with symptoms like anxiety, extreme agitation, delirium, difficulty breathing, severe headaches, seizure, and severe chest pain.

But exactly what is an overdose and how does a drug overdose occur? As we mentioned earlier, an overdose can either be intentional or accidental. These episodes occur when you take more of a drug than your body can handle. For instance, if you take more of a prescription or OTC (over the counter) drug than is recommended, it is highly likely that you may overdose.

Even so, you might have a higher sensitivity to certain drugs. This means that the high end of the drug's therapeutic range might prove toxic to you - leading a sure overdose.

Illegal drugs, on the other hand, are usually abused by people looking to get high and achieve their intoxicating and mind-altering effects. If you take these drugs in overdose amounts, it means that your metabolism and liver are unable to detoxify the substances fast enough. As a direct result, you are likely to suffer the unintended side effects of overdosing on them.

You can also expose yourself to toxic substances, plants, and chemicals that can harm your body. When this happens, you could be said to be poisoned. In many cases, if you are exposed for a long time or in higher doses, the poisoning will generally be worse. Examples of poisoning include mushroom and carbon monoxide poisoning.

That said, people will respond differently when they overdose on a drug. This is why the treatment for your overdose will be tailored to meet your particular needs and requirements.

In the same way, just about anyone - irrespective of their age, background, socio-economic status, and race can overdose on drugs. However, drug overdoses are particularly common among young children between the crawling age and 5 years old as well as among teens and people in their late young adulthood (or mid-30s).

Statistically speaking, overdose deaths claimed more than 47055 lives in the United States in 2014 alone. The same year, overdose deaths involving opioids like heroin and prescription opioid medications claimed over 28000 lives. Of all these overdose deaths, more than half were as a result of prescription opioids.

Causes Of Drug Overdose

To get answers to the "how does a drug overdose occur?" question, it is imperative that you understand the causes of a drug overdose. In any case, the cause might either be as a result of intentional drug abuse or an accidental overuse.

An accidental overdose, to this end, might result either from an adult or a young child with poor mental health swallowing drugs that they come across. Adults, especially those who are elderly or taking many different drugs, might mistakenly ingest the wrong medication or take a particular medication in the wrong dose.

Purposeful overdoses, on the other hand, happen because of the desired effects of abusing drugs - either to harm yourself or to achieve its intoxicating and mind-altering effects.

With respect to accidental overdoses, young children might swallow a drug accidentally due to the curiosity they have about these drugs. Many children below the age of 5 years - particularly those aged between 6 months and 3 years - naturally place anything they come across in their mouths.

Therefore, a drug overdose for someone in this age group might arise because someone accidentally left a drug or a prescription medication within reach of a young child.

Toddlers, on the other hand, might share any medications they find with other children. To this end, in case you suspect that one child is overdosing while there are other children in the vicinity, it is highly likely that these other children might also have taken the same drug.

Adults and teens, on the other hand, tend to overdose on drugs while trying to harm themselves. If you try to harm yourself by taking drugs in excess doses, it might be because you are attempting suicide.

In many cases, those who overdose on purpose might also be suffering from an underlying mental health condition. This condition might have been diagnosed before the overdose incident or it might not. Either way, it would have to be dealt with when the victim checks into an emergency room for treatment.

Risk Factors For Overdose

A risk factor for a substance overdose includes any factor that might increase your likelihood of abusing drugs - or one that makes it more likely for you to take the wrong drug or the incorrect dose of a medication.

To this end, some of the risk factors for an accidental drug overdose might include:

  • Age; the elderly and young children are at great risk of an accidental overdose
  • The existence of a mental health condition
  • Taking different medications and drugs at the same time

On the other hand, if you are a drug abuser, some of the risk factors for an overdose that apply to you include the following:

  • A history of overdose
  • Age: People aged between 45 and 54 years have a higher likelihood of abusing opioids while those in the 25 to 34 age bracket are more likely to engage in heroin abuse
  • Doctor shopping
  • Gender; men have a higher likelihood than women to abuse drugs
  • Low income
  • Mental illness
  • Mixing drugs and alcohol
  • Taking a high dosage of medications on a daily basis
  • Taking drugs intravenously or via injection
  • Using drugs or drinking alcohol alone
  • Using multiple drugs at the same time
  • Using street drugs

Signs And Symptoms Of An Overdose

Drugs - particularly those that people are likely to abuse and become addicted to - tend to have different effects on different parts of the body. While overdosing on a drug, its effects might be heightened to a level where you experience some of the therapeutic or pleasurable effects that arise as a result of regular use.

As you overdose, however, the adverse side effects of the drug will become much more pronounced. Additionally, you might suffer additional effects that do not normally occur when you use the drug regularly.

For some medications, experiencing an overdose might only cause minimal effects even if you took a large dose of it. However, a small dose of another drug might cause you to suffer severe effects - or even lose your life. Additionally, even a single dose of a drug might prove lethal for a young child. In other cases, overdosing on a drug might worsen your existing chronic condition. For instance, the overdose could trigger chest pain and an asthma attack.

But how can you tell that you or someone else is overdosing on a drug? The best way to do this would be to look for some signs and symptoms - including the following:

  • Coma, confusion, and sleepiness are quite common and might prove dangerous if the victim experiences aspiration (where they breathe in their vomit into their lungs)
  • Convulsions or seizures might occur
  • It is possible that they may experience intense chest pain as a result of lung or heart damage
  • Problems with their vital signals like blood pressure, respiratory rate, pulse rate, and temperature might be possible and potentially life-threatening; additionally, the values of these vital signs might decrease, increase, or be completely absent
  • Some drugs might damage particular organs of the body
  • The skin might feel sweaty and cool, or drug and hot
  • They may experience shortness of breath - with their breathing becoming shallow, deep, slow, or rapid
  • They may start vomiting blood or have blood in their bowel movements, which is a life-threatening sign
  • They might suffer diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and abdominal pain

Narcotic Overdose

If you suspect that you or someone else is overdosing on a narcotic, it is vital that you seek immediate medical attention at an emergency room in the closest hospital. Some of the signs and symptoms of a narcotic overdose include:

  • Coma
  • Death
  • Decreased oxygen levels in the blood
  • Respiratory depression (or shallow breathing)
  • Small pupils

In such a case, you can be sure that some of the methods of drug overdose resuscitation used on the street - such as injecting saliva or milk or packing the victim in ice - will not work.

Medical Care For Suspected Drug Overdose

The emergency department in your local hospital, the local poison center, or a medically trained doctor might help you determine just how serious a drug overdose that you suspect is.

Even so, the mere fact that you have developed any of the symptoms of a drug overdose should be enough to get you to seek emergency medical assistance. During the initial assessment, it is also important that you provide accurate information about the drug you took, the amount you ingested, as well as the time you used the drug. If possible, carry the bottle that the substance came in to the hospital. This is because it might have the information that the doctors need to provide appropriate treatment.

Some doctors are equipped to deal with an overdose while others are not. As such, you might arrive at the office and be referred to an emergency department in a large hospital. However, if the circumstance feels or seems life-threatening and serious, you should call 911 immediately.

Still, you will not be expected to know whether the drug overdose is or isn't serious. To this end, in case you are unable to get through to a qualified expert or professional in good time to discuss the potential drug overdose or you are unable to get in touch with the Poison Control Center (on 800-222-1222), the best thing you can do is to get the person who is overdosing over to the nearest medical facility or emergency room or department.

In the same way, you should be extra cautious while dealing with a drug overdose. This is because different people respond differently to drugs. As such, their reaction to an overdose will be difficult for you to predict.

In many cases, those who have been directed to an emergency department in the local hospital might not develop any of the physical signs of active poisoning while others might become critically ill.

If the overdose dose is unwilling to go to an emergency department or to seek medical assistance, they will have to be persuaded to do so by highly trained and experienced emergency medical professionals ice ambulance personnel and paramedics. In some instances, it might take a law enforcement official to get the person to seek the treatment they require. For these services, it is best that you can 911. Alternatively, get a member of their family to persuade them to seek the medical care they need.

If you are with the person who overdosed on drugs or alcohol, you can also help them out by looking for all chemical containers and medications around them. Bring these to the doctor when the victim gets to an emergency department.

Drug Overdose Treatment

As we mentioned above, you need to call 911 immediately you suspect that someone is overdosing on a drug or on alcohol. The treatment they receive will largely depend on the specific drug that they took. As such, it is vital that you provide any information about the amount of drugs they took, the time they took the drug, as well as any underlying medical problems that they might have.

But how does treatment for a drug overdose work? Consider the following:

1. Activated Charcoal

During the drug overdose treatment procedure, the doctor might provide the victim with activated charcoal. This substance is effective because it helps to bind drugs and keep them inside the intestines and the stomach. This effectively reduces the dose of the drug that is absorbed into the victim's blood.

After that, the drug - which is still bound to the activated charcoal - will be expelled from the body in the form of bowel movements or stool. In some cases, the doctor might provide the victim with a cathartic alongside the activated charcoal. This substance will ensure that the victim evacuates the stool from their bowels much more quickly than they otherwise would have.

2. Physical Restraint/Sedating Medications

If the victim is acting violent or in an agitated manner, they might need to be physically restrained. In some cases, doctors might even administer sedating medications - at least until the adverse effects of the drug overdose starts wearing off.

This might be disturbing for you to experience either in yourself or in a member of your family. However, you should not worry because medical professionals are trained to go to any length to ensure that they only use as much force and sedating medication as is necessary.

In this case, you should remember that the actions taken by the medical staff would be to protect you during treatment so that you do not harm yourself or others while recovering from the adverse effects of a drug overdose.

3. Intubation

In some cases, the doctors might have to in-tube you - or have to place a tube in your airway. This solution will ensure that your lungs are protected while helping you to breathe normally while undergoing the detoxification process after an overdose.

4. Medical Management

If you overdose on certain drugs, the doctors might also have to administer you with another medication. When this happens, the medication would be used to serve as an antidote. As such, it will effectively reverse the adverse effects of the drugs that you abused and overdosed on.

Alternatively, they could administer drugs to prevent you from suffering any more harm as a result of the drug you abused. Either way, your doctor will decide whether your overdose treatment has to include any additional medications.

Home Remedies For Drug Overdose

In some cases, you might be tempted to try using home remedies and home care solutions to help an overdose victim either before the emergency respondents arrive on the scene of the overdose or without them altogether.

However, it is highly advised that you never try to use home remedies or home care solutions for an overdose situation. Only do so after you have consulted a poison expert or a doctor. This means that the best thing you can do is call Poison Control even if the victim of the overdose has not started displaying any adverse symptoms.

In the case of an accidental drug overdose, the poison control center closest to you might recommend observation and home therapy. During this time, however, you should desist from administering any other therapy like syrup of ipecac unless a medical professional directs you to do so.

If you have suffered a drug overdose on purpose or intentionally while trying to harm yourself, it is important that you receive psychiatric intervention over and above the management of the overdose poisoning.

To this end, it is imperative that you take anyone who has overdosed in this way to an emergency department - even if you think that the overdose or the reasons behind it seem trivial to you. This is because such people are at great risk of eventually committing suicide in the same way at a later date.

As such, the sooner you are able to intervene, the easier it might be for you to have greater chances of success in preventing them from committing suicide by trying to overdose on drugs.

Drug Overdose Follow-Ups

If you suffered a drug overdose, you need to meet up with your doctor for a follow-up - sometimes for several times until they deem you safe enough to not require these regular meetings. In part, these follow-ups are designed to ensure that you do not suffer any delayed injury to your organ system. The meetings will also ensure that the doctor provides prevention measures against the episode from recurring in the future.

On the other hand, in case you were trying to overdose intentionally, you will receive the right treatment and management. After the case has been brought under control and you are no longer deemed to be in any danger, you will have to receive psychiatric care.

Additionally, those who abuse illicit drugs and end up overdosing on them should also receive mental health assessments, tests, and evaluations. This way, the medical experts will be able to tell whether you need psychiatric care to ensure you overcome your drug abuse and reduce or completely eliminate your risk of suffering another drug overdose.

Either way, it is essential that you find an appropriate support group. This way, you will be able to get better opportunities to manage your substance abuse or psychiatric problem before it gets out of hand again and you suffer another drug overdose.

For many children, the mere experience of receiving treatment for a drug overdose is quite frightening. As such, you might want to help them cope with the trauma that they experienced. Additionally, you should teach them about drugs that can cause an overdose so that they learn from the experience.

This is also true for most parents who had an overdose scare with their children. As a direct result, you should not assign guilt to them or point any accusatory fingers at them. Instead, use follow-up visits to discuss safety and prevention so that the episode does not occur again in the future.

Preventing Drug Overdose

Part of understanding the answers to the "how does a drug overdose occur?" question is to learn the steps you need to take to prevent an overdose from occurring in the first place or from recurring in the future. Consider the following:

1. Keep Drugs in a Safe Place

There are many ways to prevent an accidental overdose from happening. For instance, you can keep over the counter drugs, prescription medications, and any other legal substance in a safe place.

2. Address Underlying Problems

In the case of an intentional overdose, however, you might not really be able to prevent such an occurrence from happening. The safest way to do so would be to address any underlying problem before it shows up in the form of a drug overdose.

3. Inpatient Addiction Treatment

On the other hand, overdosing on illicit drugs tends to be unintentional. This is a serious problem and the best way to solve it would be to get the individual who is concerned away from their access to these drugs. A good solution, in this case, is to get them into an inpatient or residential rehabilitation facility.

4. Social Support

Additionally, if there is anyone with a mental illness and you suspect that they have a high risk for overdosing on drugs, it is imperative that you help them with medication therapy. You might also want to lend them the social support they need to lead a near-normal lifestyle.

If these people have been abusing drugs and alcohol, you may want to get them into an addiction treatment and rehabilitation center. This way, they will receive the right treatment and help to ensure that they learn how to stay clean, free of drugs, and safe from an overdose.

5. Poison and Injury Prevention

As a parent, it is your responsibility to learn more about injury and poison prevention for your children or for any other young person under your charge. This means that you should ensure that your home is as safe as possible. This involves limiting all access that young children might have to drugs and medications.

Remember, accidental poisoning and drug overdose is among the leading causes of death among children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. Therefore, it is imperative that you take every appropriate measure to protect your children from any such occurrence.

6. Medication Therapy

If you have older adults in your life, it is important that you make sure that they fully understand how they should take their drugs and medications. You might also want to teach them how to tell the difference between the various drugs that they are taking.

It might also be safe for you to supervise them while they are taking their drugs. If possible, sort their pills into small containers with appropriate labeling. This way, they will know when the time comes for them to take the different medications.

You can also buy a container that comes with a clock and an audible alarm and set it appropriately. This will remind the elderly to take their medications at the right time. Then, you can fill their other containers once a week to reduce the risk of an overdose.

Prognosis For An Overdose

In many cases, the prognosis for an overdose will vary from one person to another. Luckily, some of the people who overdose and receive emergency medical assistance will generally recover fully without suffering any lasting disability.

However, if the drug overdose was serious, it might prove fatal - even if the victim receives timely and appropriate treatment. When this happens, the drugs might cause serious damage to the victim's organ systems. This is why their improvement will first be noted while they are still in the hospital before it starts becoming clear after they get back to their homes.

In other situations, a drug overdose might permanently damage some organ systems. In particular, the kidneys and the liver are at great risk of such damage. If you suffer suppressed heart and lung function during an overdose, you might also experience severe brain damage.

In the same way, if the poor mental health problems that cause you to overdose intentionally are not addressed appropriately, then you will still be at high risk of repeating the episode.

When this happens, you should keep in mind that multiple overdoses might have cumulative effects on your organs. In the future, you may suffer organ failure or serious injury. In some cases, you might not recognize these adverse effects until later on in your life.

Apart from the above adverse effects of a drug overdose, you may also suffer:

  • Abnormal breathing
  • Changes in skin color (pale for depressant drugs and flushed for stimulant substances)
  • Decreased or increased body temperature
  • Passing out
  • Slowed or fast pulse

Overall, therefore, the best thing you can do in case of a drug overdose is to seek emergency medical assistance as soon as possible. Remember, the longer you wait, the easier it is for the overdose to turn tragic or fatal.

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