The Risks of a Drug Overdose


An overdose occurs when you take more of a drug than your body can process. It can lead to significant complications and even death.

Between November 2017 and 2018, nearly 70,000 Americans died from drug overdose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Drug overdose death is now the number one cause of accidental death in the United States for people under the age of 50, per the Drug Policy Alliance.

When you take a drug, it interacts with your brain and body functions, causing your central nervous system to either slow down or speed up, depending on the type of drug. An overdose happens when your body can’t metabolize the drug fast enough, and the results are toxic.

A drug overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention.

Types of Drugs and Their Overdose Potential

A drug overdose can occur when you take too much of any drug, and it overwhelms your system with toxic results. Not all overdoses are fatal, however.

There are two main types of drugs involved in overdose deaths: stimulants and depressants.


Stimulant drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulants like those used to treat ADHD (Ritalin and Adderall). Depressants include alcohol; benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan; antidepressant medications; and opioid drugs.


Opioids are the number one drug involved in overdose deaths in the United States. The CDC publishes that opioids are a factor in more than two-thirds of all drug overdose fatalities. They were involved in nearly 50,000 deaths in 2017.

Opioids include prescription painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), methadone, and morphine as well as the street drug heroin.

Synthetic Opiates

Synthetic opiates, particularly fentanyl, are driving opioid overdose death rates up. Fentanyl is both a powerful prescription painkiller and an illicit street drug made in illegal laboratories. It is extremely potent and lethal in very small doses, and it is often added to other drugs without the user’s knowledge.

More than 130 people die from an opioid overdose death every day in the United States, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. The opioid overdose epidemic is considered an American public health crisis.

How Much Is Too Much?

The amount of drug it takes to cause an overdose is variable, depending on several factors.If you are taking a prescription drug, any amount over the recommended dosage can cause an overdose. With illicit drugs taken for recreational purposes, any amount can be too much.


This is partly due to the fact that illicit drugs are unregulated, and you may never know the actual purity and potency of the particular drug you are taking.


Illicit drugs can vary from batch to batch. They often have additives or adulterants in them that are used to cut or stretch the product. Even if you took the same amount the last time, it could be more powerful this time and cause an overdose in a smaller dose.

Drugs like fentanyl can be fatal and lead to overdose in extremely small amounts. Doses as small as the size of a pinhead can be lethal; this amounts to less than 2 milligrams. Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin on contact too.

Opioid and depressant drugs (alcohol, sedatives, and tranquilizers) slow down the central nervous system. This can cause you to stop breathing and pass out. It can also lead to cardiac and cardiovascular complications.

Stimulant drugs speed things up and can cause heart attack or stroke in the case of an overdose. Even if an overdose doesn’t kill you, it can still deprive your brain of oxygen for too long and lead to brain damage or coma.

Overdose is different from person to person, and what may be too much for one person may not cause overdose in another. The following can make a difference in how much is too much for you:

  • Age:
    As you get older, your metabolism slows down. It may take less of a drug to cause an overdose.
  • Metabolism, genetic, and biological factors:
    Each person’s body works a little differently. Weight, sex, possible medical issues, and even ethnicity can be involved in how your body is able to break down drugs safely.
  • Type of drug and manner it is taken:
    Different drugs impact the body in variable ways. How you take the drug matters too. For instance, snorting, injecting, and smoking drugs can send them into the bloodstream more rapidly than swallowing them. This means overdose can happen more quickly.
  • Drug tolerance:
    How long you have been taking a particular drug can matter when it comes to overdose. The longer and more of a drug you take regularly, the more your body adapts. This means it will take more of the drug to have an impact.
  • Combining drugs:
    When you mix more than one drug or combine a drug with alcohol, the odds for a drug overdose increase. The substances can interact with each other and have toxic results.

Risks of Mixing Drugs

Combining drugs can be extremely dangerous, and the practice increases the risk of overdose exponentially.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) added a boxed warning (their strongest warning) to prescription benzodiazepines and opioid drugs, cautioning people against combining these two medications due to the potential for fatal overdose. NIDA publishes that in nearly 33 percent of fatal opioid overdoses, a benzodiazepine is also present.

Benzodiazepines, alcohol, and opioids are all central nervous system depressant drugs. When you combine them, they can quickly overwhelm the brain and body. Together, they have a greater impact more rapidly than if any is taken alone.

Risks also rise exponentially when alcohol is combined with any drug.


Overturning an Overdose

A drug overdose can often be reversed by swift medical intervention.

In the case of an opioid drug, the opioid antagonist medication naloxone (Narcan) can be administered quickly to overturn an overdose. The World Health Organization (WHO) publishes that if you are able to get naloxone into a person’s system in time, you can completely overturn and reverse an opioid overdose.

If you suspect a drug overdose, the best thing to do is call 911 and seek immediate medical help.

Provide first responders with the following information so they can get the treatment right and have the best chance at reversing the effects of the drugs:

  • What substances were taken
  • When and how they were taken
  • Whether or not any of the drugs were prescribed
  • Age, weight, and any other pertinent biological, medical, or mental health information you may know
  • Symptoms you have witnessed and efforts you have taken to help

There are not reversal medications for every type of drug you can overdose on. Medical attention is always necessary, as there are treatments that can potentially reduce the harmful effects of an overdose.

Have You Decided It’s Time to Get Help?

How to Get Started

A Wake-Up Call

A drug overdose is a serious and potentially fatal consequence of drug use. Much of the time, drug overdose is the result of regular drug use, and it is a complication of addiction. While it can happen with first use of a drug, an overdose can serve as a serious wakeup call that it is time to get help for drug abuse and possible addiction.

If you have experienced a drug overdose, it’s time to get care. Treatment can help you avoid a more serious or even lethal overdose in the future.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) reports that once you suffer an overdose, you are more likely to have another one. The more overdoses you put your body through, the more likely you are to have serious, long-lasting, and potentially even fatal consequences.

Over 20 million Americans struggle with drug addiction, the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) publishes. Addiction is a treatable brain disease that is the result of repeated drug use. Your brain gets used to the way the drugs work, and it will be hard for you to feel pleasure or even stable without the drugs.

A drug abuse treatment program can provide you with tools to allow your brain and body to reach a safe and healthy balance. It can also help to smooth withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Naloxone works by removing the opioids from receptors in the brain and therefore overturning their depressant effects. It can be administered through injection or as a nasal spray. It is available to people at risk for an opioid overdose without a prescription in many states.

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