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Drug Overdose

When to Seek Medical Care

Your doctor, your local poison center, or the emergency department of your local hospital may be able to help determine the seriousness of a suspected drug overdose. Development of any symptoms after drug overdose requires immediate and accurate information about the specific name of the drug, the amount of the drug ingested, and the time when the drug was taken. Often, the bottle the drug came in will have the information needed. 

  • Some doctors' offices are equipped to handle overdoses; others are not. Some doctors' offices advise their patients to go to a hospital's emergency department. In life-threatening circumstances, an ambulance should usually be summoned by calling 911.You are not expected to know when a drug overdose is serious. If you cannot reach a qualified professional by telephone to discuss the overdose, it would be prudent for you to take the overdosed person to the nearest hospital's emergency department or medical facility.

Take appropriate caution when dealing with drug overdose. Each person responds differently, and reactions are hard to predict. Many people who are directed to go to the emergency department may not develop any physical signs of poisoning. Others will become quite ill.

  • A person unwilling to go to the hospital may need persuasion by trained professionals in emergency medical services (paramedics and ambulance personnel) or law enforcement officials. You may call 911 for these services. Family members are also often helpful in persuading the person to seek medical care.
  • Anyone who is with a person who overdoses on drugs can assist by finding all medication or chemical containers and bringing them to the emergency department doctor.

Exams and Tests

A history and physical exam to look for evidence of poisoning will be performed. The doctor will order lab tests based on the organ systems that can be harmed by the specific drug overdose.

  • Family members and associates are an important source of information. They can assist in providing the doctor with names of drugs, amounts taken, and timing of overdose.
  • Specific drug levels in the blood may be measured, depending on the drug taken and the reason for the overdose.
  • Drug screening may also be done.

Drug Overdose Treatment

Treatment will be dictated by the specific drug taken in the overdose. Information provided about amount, time, and underlying medical problems will be very helpful.

  • The stomach may be washed out by gastric lavage (stomach pumping) to mechanically remove unabsorbed drugs from the stomach.
  • Activated charcoal may be given to help bind drugs and keep them in the stomach and intestines. This reduces the amount absorbed into the blood. The drug, bound to the charcoal, is then expelled in the stool. Often, a cathartic is given with the charcoal so that the person more quickly evacuates stool from his or her bowels.
  • Agitated or violent people need physical restraint and sometimes sedating medications in the emergency department until the effects of the drugs wear off. This can be disturbing for a person to experience and for family members to witness. Medical professionals go to great lengths to use only as much force and as much medication as necessary. It is important to remember that whatever the medical staff does, it is to protect the person they are treating. Sometimes the person has to be intubated (have a tube placed in the airway) so that the doctor can protect the lungs or help the person breathe during the detoxification process.
  • For certain overdoses, other medicine may need to be given either to serve as an antidote to reverse the effects of what was taken or to prevent even more harm from the drug that was initially taken. The doctor will decide if treatment needs to include additional medicines.

WebMD Medical Reference from eMedicineHealth

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