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Knowing the signs of a drug overdose can save a life

By The Health News Team | May 15, 2024
Woman sitting down feeling dizzy

Deaths due to drug overdose remain a health crisis in the U.S. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there were more than 100,000 drug overdose fatalities between November 2022 and November 2023. This number includes deaths from opioid overdoses, such as from fentanyl, a synthetic drug that’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and heroin.

“Opioids — including morphine, heroin and many other powerful painkillers — are depressants, which, when taken in dangerous amounts, can slow down the body’s heart rate,” says Dr. Zachary Shinar, an emergency medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Misused prescription opioids or illicit ones can also hinder the body’s central nervous system from properly regulating respiratory functions and cause unconsciousness.”

According to Dr. Shinar, the loss of respiratory function — namely, the ability to breathe — can result in significant medical complications. Not receiving enough oxygen for several minutes, even seconds, can lead to loss of coordination, permanent vision and hearing impairment, brain damage and death.

How to help someone having an overdose

Knowing the signs of a drug overdose is vital because fast action can save someone’s life.

Symptoms of a drug overdose include the following:

  • Confusion

  • Seizures

  • Vomiting

  • Small pupils

  • Low body temperature

  • Pale or blue, clammy skin, such as blue or purple lips or fingertips

An individual suspected of having an overdose should receive immediate medical help. People with loved ones who have a drug addiction should consider carrying naloxone, a medication that helps to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The medicine comes in either an injectable form or a nasal spray — commonly known under the brand name Narcan — and is available from pharmacists, local public health groups or health departments.

“It is critical to still get medical attention even after receiving naloxone,” says Dr. Shinar. “The medicine works in the body for only 30 to 90 minutes. So, depending on the effect of the opioids in the body, an individual may need multiple doses of naloxone or further treatment.”

Recognize the signs of a substance use disorder

While not necessarily always the case, an opioid overdose may indicate that an individual has a substance use disorder (SUD). An SUD is a behavioral health condition in which someone struggles to discontinue substance use despite experiencing many substance-related problems.

“It is important to understand that people continue use despite significant negative life events and their desire or intent to stop,” says Serene Carruthers, LMFT, manager of Sharp McDonald Center. “Therefore, it is imperative that people seek treatment.”

Warning signs of a SUD include:

  • Increased use of the substance

  • Neglecting responsibilities at home, work or school

  • Experiencing legal, interpersonal or professional troubles

  • Feeling anxious, apathetic or depressed

  • Abandoning usual hobbies and social activities

Various treatment options, including effective and safe medications taken under a medical professional’s supervision, can help an individual recover from addiction.

“Addiction never impacts only the person using the substance,” Carruthers says. “Helping the patient and their family get the education and support they need is critical to the healing process.”

Learn about Sharp McDonald Center’s addiction treatment services.

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