Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

Dangers of a Drug Overdose

Presumably, people who take in drugs do so because they like the effects the drugs can bring about. They might enjoy the calming, soothing effects of alcohol, for example, or they might enjoy the energy boost that a snort of cocaine can deliver. Some people even take drugs because they dislike the way they feel when they don’t have access to drugs. For people like this, sobriety is associated with jitters and discomfort, so staying intoxicated is almost vital. There are times, however, when the effects of drugs are far from pleasant. In fact, most drugs can deliver changes that are terrifying, debilitating or even life-threatening, if people take large doses of those drugs. In an overdose situation, a person’s life could hang in the balance, and if that person survives, the damage could linger for decades.

Defining an Overdose

An overdose takes hold when the body is overwhelmed by the amount of drugs the person takes in. There’s no set amount that’s considered toxic for all people, as the amount needed to trigger an overdose can vary from person to person, depending on a variety of factors, including:

  • Overall health
  • Age
  • Body weight
  • Hydration level
  • History of recent drug abuse
  • This last factor might be most important, in terms of overdose risk. Those who have a recent history of taking a specific drug may have developed a tolerance to the effects of that particular drug. An experienced person like this might be capable of taking twice the amount of drugs a novice might take. It’s important to note, however, that only recent use applies in this model. Those who took high doses of drugs in years past but who have a current history of sobriety might overdose if they take in the amount of drugs they once took on a regular basis. If the body isn’t prepared for this high dose, an overdose could take place.

    Symptoms of an overdose can vary dramatically, depending on the drugs in play, but the effects are often exaggerated versions of what the drugs are designed to do.

    Sedative drugs like alcohol, for example, tend to produce extreme sedation during an overdose. Stimulant drugs like cocaine, on the other hand, tend to produce extreme anxiety and stress during an overdose. In most cases, however, a true overdose results in some kind of unconsciousness or lack of appropriate response to normal stimulus.

    Common Culprits

    While almost any substance could cause an overdose, if people take in large enough amounts, there are some drugs that are closely tied with overdoses. Many of these drugs are only available with a prescription from a medical professional.
    In 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 14,800 people died due to a drug overdose attributed to a prescription painkiller like Vicodin, OxyContin or methadone.

    For every one death attributed to a drug like this, there were 32 emergency room visits due to misuse, the CDC reports. These drugs are considered so very dangerous because they are profound sedatives that can slow breathing and heart rates, even while people report feeling only euphoria. People in the depths of an addiction might feel as though they’re taking the drugs they need in order to feel bliss, but they might be walking quite close to a dangerous dose.

    Prescription sedatives like Xanax and Valium have also been associated with overdoses, as these drugs also tend to slow down breathing rates and heart rates. It’s also common for people to use these drugs in conjunction with alcohol, hoping to smooth out their experience and feel a more sustained form of pleasure. Since alcohol is also a sedative, mixing these two drugs could produce a doubling effect that could make an overdose more likely.

    Prescription drugs and alcohol aren’t the only substances associated with overdoses. People who take illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine might also overdose, if they take in doses that are higher than those their bodies expect. This can be a particular problem for people who buy their drugs from street dealers, as they may have little to no control over the strength of the drugs they buy. A dose they purchase on Thursday may be at one strength and demand one dosing amount, but the drug purchased on Friday might be twice as pure, so the same amount might produce an overdose.

    Of those who take illicit drugs, the overdose rate is quite high. For example, according to statistics released as part of International Overdose Awareness Day, of all people who inject drugs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, two-thirds have had some sort of overdose experience.

    Death Rates

    Of all of the dangers attributed to a drug overdose, death is the most feared. It can be terrifying for people to think about losing their lives due to their next hit, and often, users will try a variety of techniques in order to keep from losing their lives to their addictions. They might buy drugs from the same dealers, or make their own drugs, and they might always take drugs in the company of others, in case something goes wrong. Unfortunately, these steps aren’t always effective, and people can and do lose their lives due to an overdose.

    The National Conference of State Legislators suggests that drug overdose deaths hover in the range of 9 deaths per 100,000 people. That might sound like a low number, but the families of people who die due to their addictions might be forever haunted by the poor decisions their loved ones made, and they might consistently blame themselves for the things they didn’t say or the actions they didn’t take. The overdose is a tragedy for these families, and it might be hard for them to recover.

    Treatment Options

    Some people don’t die due to their overdoses, however, and they may not because of quick thinking on behalf of the people surrounding them during the overdose event. People who overdose on prescription painkillers in the opioid family, along with people who abuse illicit opiates like heroin, might be especially lucky when it comes to overdoses. If these people obtain another prescription drug known as an agonist, they can effectively render the drugs in their bodies inactive. With one dose, they might be restored to a normal level of functioning in no time at all. People who are overdosing to other drugs, including alcohol and cocaine, might not have a shot they can take in order to feel better, but there are treatments that can help. Flushing their bodies with fluids while providing sedating medications might help people who are in the throes of a stimulant overdose, for example, while providing glucose and fluids might help someone to recover from an alcohol overdose episode.

    Unfortunately, some people overdose in such a subtle way that they’re not noticed by the people around them.

    They might just seem sleepy or a little confused, and friends might leave them alone to “sleep it off.” Stimulant overdoses can seem a lot like an angry outburst, and those people might seem to need alone time in order to cool off and calm down. As a result, it’s not uncommon for overdosing people to get no help at all, and they might have serious medical problems in the days that follow.

    Longstanding Damage

    During an overdose episode to a sedative-type drug, breathing rates can slow to such a degree that vital brain cells are deprived of the oxygen they need to survive. These cells may simply die off, or they might be so damaged during the episode that they don’t function at maximum capacity in the future.

    While the ongoing symptoms left behind due to an episode like this can vary, it’s common for people to experience:

    • Memory problems
    • Weakness in the legs or the arms
    • Jerky, wobbling arm and leg movements
    • Lack of coordination
    • Tremors
    • Cognitive difficulties

    Some people develop difficulties with sight, finding it hard to see at all, or finding specific shapes and colors difficult to identify. Others develop hearing losses due to their brain injuries.

    Some survive their original overdoses, U.S. National Library of Medicine, people like this usually die within a year of entering the coma, but some people live for a much longer period of time.

    People who take stimulant medications may not face the same risk of sedation, but they might experience severe heart damage during their overdose episodes. Their heart muscles might be strained during the overdose episode, and those little pulls and tears might result in heart failure later. In some cases, people just don’t seem to have the cardiac capacity they had prior to the overdose, and they seem endlessly tired and weak as a result.

    Prevention Is Key

    While quick treatment can help to reverse the longstanding damage an overdose can cause, and treatment might help to prevent death, it’s preferable for people to get treatment for addiction so they’ll never face the risk of an overdose in the first place. With treatment, people won’t continually escalate their drug use, and they might never take the huge doses that are associated with this overdose issue.

    If your adolescent son is experimenting with drugs, and you see an overdose episode on the horizon for your family, it’s time to take action. Our treatment program is designed to reach teen boys before they transition into a life-long drug habit. Please download our parent’s guide to find out more about our program, or just call us with any questions you might have.

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