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5 Facts About Drug Overdose and Death

By Michael Howard
Drug overdoses kill tens of thousands of Americans every year. Learn more about this ongoing crisis.

The rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States has been steadily increasing over the past two decades. Nearly 841,000 Americans have died from a drug overdose since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are five things you should know about America’s drug crisis.

Most overdose deaths involve opioids. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that, of the more than 70,000 overdose deaths in 2019, nearly 50,000—or about 70%—were caused by opioids. This category includes prescription opioids, heroin, and illicit fentanyl.

Many of these deaths involve a cocktail of different opioids. For instance, NIDA statistics show that more than 14,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2019; in over half of these cases, the people had combined heroin with a synthetic opioid.

Illicit fentanyl is helping to drive the opioid crisis. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC. In clinical settings, fentanyl is prescribed as a treatment for severe pain, oftentimes following surgery.

But there is also an illicit form of the drug. Manufactured in unlicensed laboratories, illicit fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S., where it is sold on the black market.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), fentanyl is regularly added to other drugs—particularly heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine—to increase their potency. It is also commonly sold in the form of powder, nasal spray, or pills that resemble prescription opioids.

Even a small dose of fentanyl can be lethal.

Depending on a person’s size and tolerance, 2 mg of fentanyl can cause a fatal overdose. The DEA has seized counterfeit tablets containing as much as 5.1 mg. Because such tablets are produced and sold illegally, people who use them have no way of knowing whether they contain fentanyl and, if so, how much.

About 1 in 5 overdose deaths involve cocaine.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that carries a very high risk of addiction. It is typically snorted, smoked, or injected intravenously. According to the CDC, approximately 5 million Americans reported using cocaine in 2016.

Common, serious side effects of cocaine use include irregular heart rhythm, heart attack, seizure, and stroke. The risk of overdose increases when the drug is combined with alcohol or heroin.

In 2019, nearly 16,000 Americans died from a drug overdose involving cocaine, according to the NIDA. Many of these deaths were caused by a combination of cocaine and synthetic opioids.

Most drug overdoses are not fatal.

While official statistics tend to concentrate on drug overdoses that result in death, a far greater number are non-fatal. The CDC emphasizes that each overdose incident, including non-fatal ones, has significant emotional and economic consequences. Moreover, having one overdose increases a person’s risk of overdosing again in the future, which is why early treatment for addiction is so important.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.