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Dealing With Addiction: Overdose

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 10, 2021

If you experience an overdose, either your own or as a witness to someone else’s, it can be frightening. When you know what to do in the moment and how to handle the situation afterward, it can help you feel more in control and get you the help you need.

What is an overdose?

An overdose occurs when there is too much of a drug or alcohol -- or a mix of drugs and/or alcohol -- in your body. This can happen when you take more than the recommended amount of prescribed or over-the-counter medicines, or when you take illegal drugs, such as opioids.

An overdose can happen suddenly if you take a large amount of drugs or alcohol at one time. It can also build up over a few hours as the amount of drugs and/or alcohol increases in your body.

What are the signs or symptoms of an overdose?

People have different symptoms during an overdose, depending on the types of drugs or alcohol consumed and how they react to them.

For example, if you take too much of a depressant drug (“downer”) or drink too much alcohol, you may:

  • Become disoriented
  • Fall unconscious
  • Have blue lips or fingernails
  • Develop shallow breathing
  • Stop breathing altogether

You may also have slurred speech and be unable to walk or stand.

If you take too much of a stimulant (“upper”), such as amphetamine, you may have:

You can also lose consciousness or stop breathing.

You may also have other symptoms, including very high or very low blood pressure, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, and tiredness.

What do I do if I witness an overdose?

If you or someone you know may be having an overdose, call 911 right away.

Try to keep the person awake, either sitting or lying down, and monitor their breathing. If the person is conscious, ask them what drugs they took and how much. This information will be helpful for the emergency medical team. Stay with the person until help arrives, and try to remain calm.

If the person is unconscious, put them on their side so they don’t choke if they vomit. Don’t try to give them anything to eat or drink.

If they stop breathing, start CPR.

If you know someone is overdosing on opioids and have access to naloxone -- a safe medicine that can quickly stop the effects of opioids in the body -- give it to them right away. You can inject it into a muscle or spray it into their nose. This can help stop an overdose as it’s happening.

Many people fear calling for help when someone is having an overdose because the overdose may involve illegal drugs or alcohol in a person too young to legally drink. Many states have good Samaritan laws, which provide some protection for both the person needing medical attention and the caller when the overdose involves small amounts of illegal substances. Laws vary by state and do not protect from other crimes.

Don’t think twice about calling 911 for help. It’s better to be safe than sorry. You could be saving a life.

What should I do after an overdose?

An intentional overdose may be a sign of mental health concerns, or a sign that you need professional help to deal with stress, anxiety, or depression. An accidental overdose of drugs or alcohol may be a sign of addiction. Medical detox and therapy can help you address mental health and substance abuse disorders.

If someone overdoses the first time they use a drug or drink alcohol, they may also need some help. While they may not have a substance abuse disorder, they should learn more about addiction and alcohol and drug use to be sure they stay safe in the future.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Providence Health: “Witnessing a Drug Overdose? It may be a Medical Emergency.”

American Addiction Centers.

National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.

CDC: “Preventing an opioid overdose. Know the Signs. Save a life.”

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