Drug overdose accounts for nearly 75,000 deaths every year (NIDA). Since 1999, drug overdose became the number one cause of death for people in the United States under 50 years old. That’s not a comforting statistic, especially if you or someone you care about is currently struggling with a substance addiction. You might feel quite alone in the fear that one day you yourself could end up in the corner of a room pronounced dead from an accidental drug overdose. Or maybe you’re someone who already knows what it’s like to lose a friend or family member to an accidental drug overdose that could have been easily prevented.
Even if you don’t personally know someone who’s died too young from an accidental overdose, it’s not uncommon to turn on the news and see famous idols like Mac Miller, Amy Winehouse, or Prince ending their careers early through drug overdose– whether intentional or accidental, we might never know.
The death-by-drugs epidemic has been called a National Overdose Crisis for nearly twenty years now. But it’s simply one of the sad (and deadly) side effects which result from the overall addiction problem in our country. Chances are, you know someone personally who faces drug addiction and likely knows what it’s like to experience affliction.
Why Have So Many Americans Died from Drug Overdose?
There are several reasons why accidental drug overdose happens so often. One of the leading reasons behind overdose is irresponsible drug use or improper dosage. Other reasons, like a rise in tolerance, impurity of the type of drug, or mixing substances can also cause fatal consequences that lead to overdose.
Whether “drug culture” or personal preference is to blame, many drug users like to push the envelope when it comes to seeing how much is enough just before too much. For example, look at drinking in social settings or at parties. Often it’s encouraged to consume more alcohol as a means of looking cool or appearing stronger than someone else. But this mentality of “do more” until the body can’t take it anymore can lead to a lifestyle that breeds the risk of overdosing.
Even new drug users or experimenters can fall into the trap of trusting someone with a higher tolerance to offer advice on dosing. Instead of starting small to feel it out, someone may succumb to peer pressure and take something they hardly know about, leading to a total lack of harm reduction in many situations. The rise in popularity of raves, music festivals, and a partying lifestyle that might seem luxurious has been a giant hub for all kinds of dangers with little harm reduction strategies in place.
Why Don’t People STOP Using Drugs?
This is a tricky question. Many people who have an addiction don’t operate in a way where they can simply “stop” one day and refuse drugs on their own. A substance abuse disorder trains the brain to literally depend on the substance(s) of choice– in a sense, it becomes a “life or death” situation for the addict. Addiction becomes a sort of instinct to the drug user, which makes life complicated when it comes to coping with normal daily tasks.
How Accidental Drug Overdose Became So Common
Since the 1990s, or even starting much earlier, drugs have become more accessible and popular among the general population. Even kids in high school knew where to easily get their hands on Adderall, weed, oxycodone, and other potentially dangerous drugs for recreational, emotional numbing, or “academic” purposes.
Prescription drugs have become an ever-increasingly surge for medical emergencies of all sorts, as well. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) shows a rise in chronic illness and injury which often results in opioid prescriptions. Ironically, unnecessary opioid refills lead to addiction time and time again.
Over the past 20 years, even new prescription opioids have entered the medical market and therefore we continue to see a rise in their abuse of them.
Illicit Drugs Have Evolved
Illicit drugs are obviously still one of the major risk factors that lead to an accidental overdose. Because illegal drugs like meth or synthetic opioids aren’t regulated, people are left to their own guesstimates when dealing with, buying, and consuming these substances.
What goes into a lot of common illegal drugs has changed over the years, too. Now, it’s pretty well-known in party culture that buying drugs from any random dealer at an event is actually pretty dumb. Many popular party drugs like cocaine, MDMA, ketamine, and even some psychedelics are sometimes made with dirty ingredients or fillers which can lead to illness, seizures, or simply a really horrible experience.
Heroin used to be considered a sketchy opioid that only hardcore drug users were known for. But now, we can see heroin in the hands of teenagers, homeless communities, housewives, and everywhere in between. Fentanyl, one of the most dangerous and easily-overdosed drugs in the world right now, is also being given to people from all walks of life as a means to avoid the high costs of heroin or other opioids.
Things have definitely changed over the course of twenty years, but one thing remains for sure: drug overdose death is a harsh reality we face in every community. And it needs to end.
How To Tell If Someone is Having an Overdose?
It’s important to remember that not all overdoses end up causing death. Sometimes one drug overdose can look different from another. Some accidental drug overdoses can look like intentional suicides, and sometimes we’ll never know what exactly caused the overdose if a mixture of substances is present.
Different types of drugs also result in different physical reactions leading to an overdose. Of course, if you do end up using, it’s always crucial to know what exact drugs you’re taking, what dosage, and how the drug could react in your body. Perhaps the single most common mistake that can cause an overdose is ignorance about drugs themselves.
So how can we tell if an overdose is happening? There are a few common warning signs and symptoms to look out for:
- Loss of consciousness after consuming any substance.
- Bluish or purple tint to the fingernails, lips, or skin (especially with opioids and amphetamines).
- Uncontrollable muscle spasms or bodily seizures
- A dramatic increase or decrease in pulse or other vital signs
- Pupils change: pinpoint pupils for opioids; dilated pupils for stimulants and many hallucinogens.
- Vomiting, choking, foaming at the mouth, or a gurgling sound
- Delerium, psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations
- Loss of control over organs or kidneys
- Excessive sweating
- Heart attack, coma
- Depression in breathing or trouble gasping for air
- Lack of motor control, the body may become limp
Remember, different substances cause different overdose symptoms so are sure to know what overdose signs look like for specific drugs.
What Can You Do if You Witness an Overdose?
If you or someone you see has signs of a drug overdose, make sure you call 9-1-1 for emergency help right away. Don’t be afraid of getting in trouble– The Good Samaritan Law is effective in many states. This is a law that protects your privacy and situation where law enforcement is required to save a life instead of getting you in jail. Many people prevent calling for help when there’s an overdose because they fear the legal consequences– but don’t hesitate to get emergency help right away, as it could save a life.
If you’re someone who sees an overdose happen in someone else, you’ll want to wait with the overdoser until authorities show up. Try to give the ambulance or medical examiner as much information as possible. This includes what drugs were consumed, how much, what the person’s mental state was, and what time drugs were taken.
You may want to call poison control, too (800-222-2222) in the case of toxic substances or illegal drugs.
Make sure aftercare is sought for whoever survived the overdose– it could take time for the mind and body to recover from any immediate or permanent damage.
Naloxone– or Narcan– or other medications can be given to a patient if necessary. There are meds that prevent opioids from binding to brain receptors or temporarily reverse the “high”, which can save a person’s life in the case of an overdose. Narcan is a nose spray that quickly goes into effect to reverse the side effects of many opioids, like heroin, Fentanyl, and even some prescriptions. Some states even give prescriptions in case of emergency so you can keep some at home.
Awareness is Key to preventing an accidental drug overdose
The surest way to prevent an accidental drug overdose is, obviously, to refrain from drug use, period. But if addiction is present, this is highly unlikely, so second to the best way of prevention is this: BE AWARE OF DRUGS, EFFECTS, and DOSAGES.
When you’re aware of what is possible with drugs you consume, you’re better off knowing what not to do which can lead to overdose. This is not only true for yourself but for any friends or loved ones who also partake in drug use or abuse. Teach others and stay as safe as you can in all situations. Remember to reach out for help if your drug use is unmanageable in any way.
Drug Test Kits
There are test kits that are available for as cheap as $25 which can prevent all kinds of drug overdoses. These kits test for the purity and quality of specific drugs– as mentioned before, many drugs these days are garbage. People mix them with “fillers” or things like bath salts, rat poison, or even meth to make for cheaper production of the substance.
Again, the safest way to 100% avoids any risk of overdosing is to quit using drugs completely. Help is out there for anyone even if you feel lost or hopeless. Recovery is possible. Reach out for help, as there are millions of resources around the country and professionals who strive to help you overcome addiction.
Dealing With Loss After a Drug Overdose
Overdose deaths involving any type of substance can wreak havoc on families, communities, relationships, and the nationwide drug crisis. What is one to do after the devastation of a loved one dying by overdose?
Although nothing can replace the human life and relationship lost, there are ways to continue on with life and grieve through the process in order to heal.
- Join a support group (like GRASP or Al-Anon)
- See a therapist who specializes in loss
- Take time to grieve and let yourself cope with the pain
- Avoid self-destructive patterns– sadly, many people in the drug scene who lost friends or family to drug overdose end up turning to drugs themselves.
- Make sure to care for yourself well! Don’t neglect your needs
- Stay close to your connection to the outdoors. Nature is extremely healing.
- Look into resources in your local community for people who have lost loved ones to drug overdose and take part in events, shares, and fundraisers to help improve the lives of others.
There is Still Hope
Addiction can be a complicated disease that can require compassion. Sometimes there is nothing you can do except try to encourage them to get the treatment they need. Remember, addiction is a disease that is out of the person’s control to manage on their own. Sometimes it might require detaching from the situation or person because ultimately it can be difficult to witness someone destroy themselves.
Recovery is possible, so if you yourself deal with addiction, reach out for help as soon as possible. People of all walks of life enter into a successful recovery journey and learn how to live drug-free, fully thriving without risk of a drug overdose.