Do You Know the Signs of Drug or Alcohol Overdose?

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Drug overdose is a serious problem worldwide.

Most people in the U.S. know about drug overdose because of the ongoing opioid epidemic, which caused a staggering increase in overdose deaths between 2012 and 2017. For detailed information on opioids, read our article Opioid Addiction: Facts, Figures, and Treatment. This article will offer combined drug and alcohol overdose statistics, briefly address drug-related deaths, then share the signs and symptoms of overdose for the following drugs:

  • Alcohol
  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Opioids

First, let’s look at the most recent worldwide statistics on drug and alcohol overdose. These figures appear in the Global Burden of Disease Report published by the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet. This report includes data on all causes of death for each country in the world.

Here’s the data from 2017:

Worldwide Deaths: Alcohol and Drug Overdose

  • International total:
    • Alcohol: 184, 934
    • Drugs: 166,613
  • North America:
    • Alcohol: 15,241
    • Drugs: 69,708
  • Central America:
    • Alcohol: 8,825
    • Drugs: 2,506
  • South America:
    • Alcohol: 13,046
    • Drugs: 4,257
  • United Kingdom:
    • Alcohol: 2,319
    • Drugs: 4,257
  • Western Europe:
    • Alcohol: 17,749
    • Drugs: 11,279
  • Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia:
    • Alcohol: 51,976
    • Drugs: 14,818
  • East, South, and Southeast Asia:
    • Alcohol: 62,866
    • Drugs: 78,989
  • North Africa and the Middle East
    • Alcohol: 1,803
    • Drugs: 10,012
  • Australasia:
    • Alcohol: 670
    • Drugs: 1,297

A quick read of these numbers show that drug and alcohol overdose is a problem that affects the entire world, not only the United States. However, for a single country, the U.S. accounts for a disproportionate number of overdose deaths. Our total population makes up 4.25 percent of the total world population, while in 2017, our total of close to seventy thousand drug overdose deaths accounted for 40 percent of worldwide overdose deaths, and our opioid count of close to fifty thousand accounts for almost thirty percent of worldwide overdose deaths for all drugs.

We have a lot of work to do.

Overdose: Signs and Symptoms for Alcohol and Most Common Drugs

We can start our work by understanding what overdose looks like, so we can prevent an accidental drug or alcohol overdose from leading to fatality. Preventing death is the most important goal. Reversing the effect of an overdose as soon as possible is our second goal. When an overdose does not cause death, the results may still be severe. Overdose can lead to hypoxia – a lack of oxygen to the brain – which can cause coma, seizures, and brain damage. The long-term consequences of brain damage include mild to severe impairment of:

  • Cognitive function: thinking, memory, and concentration
  • Communication: speaking and writing
  • Motor function: movement, coordination, balance
  • Senses: vision and hearing

That’s why it’s important to get medical help immediately if you suspect someone has overdosed on alcohol or drugs: you may save their life and prevent severe, life-changing brain damage. We’ll say this again, but we’ll say it first now.

If you think someone has overdosed, do not wait: call 911 immediately.

Now let’s look at the signs of overdose, staring with alcohol, which many people do not know can cause fatal overdose.

Alcohol Overdose Symptoms

  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Irregular breathing: gaps of more than 10 seconds between breaths
  • Slow breathing: less than 8 breaths per minute
  • Pale/bluish skin
  • Low body temperature
  • Loss of consciousness

Click here for a downloadable pdf Fact Sheet on Alcohol Overdose

Stimulant Overdose Symptoms

Common stimulants include cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and MDMA

  • Psychotic appearing behaviors and symptoms when the person has no diagnosed mental illness or condition (except substance use disorder):
    • Paranoia
    • Delusions
    • Hallucinations
  • Severe agitation
  • Aggressiveness
  • Panic, confusion, disorientation
  • Hot, flushed, or sweaty skin
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Unsteady gait
  • Rigid muscles
  • Muscle spasms
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Breathing problems

Click here for a downloadable pdf Fact Sheet on Stimulant Overdose

Depressant Overdose Symptoms

Common depressants include barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol

  • Vomiting
  • Conscious but unresponsive
  • Limp body
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Blue lips and/or fingernails
  • Shallow, erratic, or slow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling noises
  • Unconsciousness

Click here for a downloadable pdf Fact Sheet on Depressant Overdose

Opioid Overdose Symptoms

Common opioids include heroin, opium, methadone, and pain relievers containing hydrocodone or oxycodone

  • Unresponsive to any stimuli
  • Shallow or stopped breathing
  • Will not wake up
  • Unusual snoring and gurgling noises
  • Blue or gray lips and/or fingertips
  • Floppy arms and legs

Click here for a downloadable pdf Fact Sheet on Opioid Overdose

That’s a lot of information to digest all at once. You can see that some symptoms are common to most cases of overdose, such as unconsciousness, unresponsiveness, abnormal breathing, abnormal sounds related to breathing, and a bluish tinge to fingers or lips. If you or someone you love experience any of these symptoms, do not wait: get medical help immediately. Most often, the best way to get immediate medical help is by calling 911.

Overdose Awareness Day

The best way to prevent overdose is by educating yourself and your loved ones about the dangers of overdose. We list them above, but it’s worth repeating that the two most severe consequences of overdose are death and mild to severe brain damage. Both are tragic, and both harm individuals, families, and their loved ones every day.

One reason overdose death triggers a mix of emotions in people is that almost all overdose deaths are preventable. We know most overdose deaths occur in people with alcohol or drug use disorder (AUD/SUD) – and we know that AUD and SUD are treatable medical conditions that individuals can and do recover from. In cases of opioid overdose,  we also know timely administration of Narcan (naloxone) can reverse the effects of overdose and prevent 10death and brain damage. We know these things and share them so more people will know the facts about drug and alcohol use and its consequences.

The more people know, the more they can help people who need help. To join the awareness movement and learn about what you can do to help spread reliable, evidence-based information about drug and alcohol use, drug and alcohol treatment and recovery, and drug and alcohol overdose, please read the following articles on our blog:

August 31st, 2020 is International Overdose Day: Time to Remember. Time to Act.

Join the Voices for Recovery: National Recovery Month 2020