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Drug Overdose Signs and Symptoms

Drug abuse always carries the risk of serious side effects, including overdose. Whether you abuse alcohol, an illegal drug like cocaine, or medications prescribed by a doctor—such as opioid painkillers—addiction development will always be a concern. And, in many cases, if substance abuse behavior persists, there remains a real possibility of drug or alcohol overdose occurring.

What Is an Overdose on Drugs or Alcohol?

An overdose—sometimes referred to as an OD for short—happens when the body is overwhelmed by a toxic amount of substance or combination of substances. It’s possible to overdose on many substances if they are abused, including alcohol, illicit drugs, and even prescribed medication.

Any drug overdose can be either accidental or intentional. Accidental overdoses tend to happen when people take more of a prescription medication than originally intended or use too much of an illegal drug trying to get a better high. Intentional overdoses are usually a result of someone trying to commit suicide. Regardless of the intent, any loss of life due to overdose is tragic, and an overdose can have severe and lasting repercussions.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the total number of deaths due to drug overdose rose more than twofold from 2002 to 2015.1 Furthermore, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of opioid-related deaths had increased by 200% since 2000.2 The numbers underscore—perhaps today more than ever—the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms of a drug overdose so that you can get the help you or a loved one needs—and possibly save a life.

What Are the Signs of Overdose & Overdose Symptoms?

The physical and psychological signs of a drug overdose can vary depending on the type of drug taken and whether the drug was taken in combination with other substances.

Common signs and symptoms of a drug overdose can include:3,4

  • Dilated pupils.
  • Unsteady walking.
  • Chest pains.
  • Severe difficulty breathing, shallow breathing, or complete cessation of breath.
  • Gurgling sounds that indicate the person’s airway is blocked.
  • Blue lips or fingers.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Abnormally high body temperature.
  • Violent or aggressive behavior.
  • Disorientation or confusion.
  • Paranoia.
  • Agitation.
  • Convulsions or tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Unresponsiveness.
  • Unconsciousness.
  • Death.

How Long Do Overdose Symptoms and Signs Last?

A person may not exhibit all or even most of these signs, and the length of time of the overdose may vary depending on other factors such as how the body responds, the type of substance, the amount taken, and how severe the overdose is. Even a few symptoms can indicate that a person is experiencing an overdose. If this is the case, a person should take these symptoms very seriously.

Overdose Risk Factors

If you abuse any substance, there is always a risk of overdosing. However, certain actions and conditions may further increase this risk, and it is important to be aware of them in order to reduce the chance of a person overdosing. These factors include:4,5,6

  • Significant physiologic dependence on a drug.
  • Prior overdose(s).
  • Abusing multiple substances, including alcohol.
  • Taking a large amount of a substance at once.
  • Dropping out of substance abuse treatment.
  • Gradually increasing the dose of a substance over time.
  • A reluctance to seek emergency help when needed.
  • Intravenous drug use.
  • Being recently released from prison.
  • Previous suicide attempts.
  • Resuming drug use after a period of abstinence.
  • Low level of physical tolerance.

Tolerance refers to the state that occurs when your body has become accustomed to the presence of a drug, so that it requires increased amounts or more frequent doses of the substance to achieve the kind of high you previously felt with a smaller dose. If you continue to increase your dose or take the drug more frequently, you may have a higher risk of overdosing.

Tolerance may also influence overdose risk in another way. For instance, people with a history of chronic or heavy substance abuse may develop considerable tolerance to the effects of a drug, allowing them to take more than someone who is “drug naïve,” or has less of a history with the substance. Following attempts to quit a drug, or any period of abstinence, tolerance may abate. Should the person suddenly return to using the drug, especially in doses they may have once been accustomed to, overdose may be more likely.

What to Do if You Overdose on Drugs

If you or a loved one has potentially overdosed on drugs, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911 to receive emergency help right away. You might also implement a few of the following procedures while waiting for medical personnel to arrive. However, be sure to avoid putting your own safety at risk, since certain drugs can prompt violent or unpredictable behavior in the person taking them.

  • Check the person’s breathing and heart rate.
  • If the person is unconscious, try to get a response. Ask the person questions to assess their level of alertness and to calmly keep them engaged, if possible.3
  • If the person is not breathing, turn them on their side.3
  • If you are medically qualified to do so, provide CPR if necessary.4
  • Give first aid as directed by 911 operators.3
  • Do not allow the person to take any more of the substance.
  • Obtain as much information as possible, including the drug dose taken and the last time the person took the substance.
  • If prescription medications or otherwise labeled substances have been used, take the container with you to the ER, even if it is empty.
  • Make note of any identifying paraphernalia, or bring along any containers of other drugs or substances the person may have taken.
  • Do not try to reason with the person or give your opinions about the situation.
  • Stay as calm as possible while waiting for medical personnel to arrive.
  • Assure the person that help is coming.

American Addiction Centers Can Help is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC), a leading provider of outpatient programs—such as drug and alcohol detox care—and inpatient rehab programs. If you are struggling with addiction and are considering detox or rehab, please call our team to find the treatment you need. You can reach us free at . You can also contact free drug and alcohol helpline numbers.

American Addiction Centers accepts many insurance plans and can work with you on a manageable payment plan.

You can use our free and confidential online insurance checker below to see if your health insurance will cover the cost of treatment.

Preventing Drug Overdose

Of course, not using drugs is the most advisable way to prevent an overdose. However, if you or someone you care about is already suffering from an addiction or demonstrating problematic substance use behavior, taking certain steps can help decrease the likelihood of overdose, including:7,8 

  • Increasing your awareness of overdose signs and risks.
  • Knowing the drug and dose of the drug you are taking.
  • Avoiding multiple substance use (e.g. do not drink alcohol if you are using any drug).
  • Starting with a low dose if you haven’t used in a while.
  • Using in the presence of another person if you must use. If you do overdose, the person can seek help.
  • Seeking substance abuse treatment if you think you have an addiction.

Addiction Treatment Programs

Treatment for substance abuse and addiction issues can prevent an overdose, as well as help you start on the path to clean and sober living. Some of the treatment options you might consider include:

  • Detox. You can enroll in either an inpatient or outpatient detox program for help and support in managing withdrawal and reducing cravings at this early stage of recovery. After the detox period ends, you’ll need to enter a formal recovery program to ensure your best chances of sobriety.
  • Inpatient or Residential Treatment. You can select from many inpatient programs that last for anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Inpatient treatment programs provide a highly structured environment with 24/7 care and support. You’ll participate in a wide range of treatments, including group therapy, individual counseling, drug testing, psychoeducational groups, and relapse prevention education classes.
  • Luxury Treatment. For those who require the structure and support of an inpatient program but would prefer luxurious perks and amenities (such as gourmet meals, spa treatments, and private rooms) that can make your stay feel more like a resort stay, luxury treatment might be the way to go. This is a more expensive option than low-cost or free rehab treatment.
  • Executive Treatment. Professionals in highly demanding careers may opt for executive treatment facilities, which provide similar care to luxury treatment centers but allow time for working and, in some cases, even traveling (for work purposes) if necessary.
  • Partial Hospitalization. Many people transition from inpatient treatment to a partial hospitalization program—a type of highly structured and therapeutically intensive outpatient program. You live at home but attend treatment most days of the week for several hours per day. Some facilities offer weekend or evening treatment as well.
  • Intensive Outpatient. This form of outpatient treatment mainly offers individual and group counseling services. You live at home but attend treatment between 10-12 hours per week. Services are often available throughout the day or evening, and even on weekends, in some cases.
  • Standard Outpatient Treatment. You attend regularly scheduled group therapy and individual counseling sessions one or two days or evenings per week. This form of treatment may be beneficial for the long-term maintenance of sobriety following the completion of more intensive treatment programs, and may continue for years, if desired.
  • Gender-Specific Treatment. Gender-specific treatment can be a beneficial recovery option for those who prefer to focus on treatment without the distraction of the opposite sex.
  • Veterans’ Treatment. Addressing the unique psychosocial needs of those who have served in the armed forces, veterans’ treatment provides a range of services, including addiction treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and treatment for any co-occurring mental or physical health concerns.
  • 12-Step Groups. Based on the 12 Steps of recovery developed for and used by Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step groups offer a structured path to recovery based on acknowledging a higher power and working through specific steps with the aid of a sponsor. People may attend 12-Step groups as a supplement to other forms of treatment or to continue their recovery once they have successfully completed a treatment program.

Addiction Therapy Types

The specific types of addiction therapy you might receive can vary based on the substance you use. The therapy you participate in may include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy focuses on identifying and changing dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors that may have contributed to or perpetuated your substance abuse problem.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). In certain cases, you may receive specific medications to help you wean off a drug. Additional pharmaceutical intervention may help address any co-occurring mental or physical ailments.
  • Individual Counseling. You work one-on-one with a counselor to address psychological and social issues that may underlie your addiction.
  • Group Counseling. A counselor leads a group of others in recovery. You gain support and learn from others who have been in your shoes.

Drug-Specific Overdose Information

Health Insurance Coverage for Addiction Treatment

Learn more about insurance coverage levels from some household health brand names for addiction rehab and treatment:

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