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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

Drug Overdose

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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.

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