Signs of a Drug and Alcohol Overdose and What to Do

If you suspect that someone is overdosing on drugs or alcohol, each second counts. Intervening early in an overdose can save a person’s life, but you must know what to look for. We’ll cover some of the signs that a person is suffering from an overdose and what you can do to help.

What to Do if Someone is Overdosing

An overdose is an urgent situation. Alcohol or drug overdose can lead to severe health consequences and may be fatal in some cases. If you suspect someone is overdosing, here is what you need to do:

  • Look for signs of an overdose.
  • Call 911 right away and follow the instructions of the operator. If you know which drugs the person has taken, relay that information to the operator.1
  • If it’s available, administer Narcan (generic: naloxone) if the person is showing any signs of an opioid overdose such as slowed breathing, tiny pupils or unconsciousness.
  • Move the person into the recovery position to prevent choking.
  • If the person is not breathing and there is no pulse, perform CPR (if trained to do so).
  • Stay with the individual until emergency services arrives.

Possible Signs of Overdose

Many overdose deaths may be prevented with quick medical intervention.2 In order to get someone the emergency medical treatment they need, you need to be aware of the signs of an alcohol or drug overdose. While it is important to note that different drugs can produce different overdose symptoms, there are some general indicators that a person is in danger and may be experiencing a potentially life-threatening overdose. If you have any suspicion that someone has overdosed, call for emergency help right away.


  • In some cases, a person experiencing an overdose will seem to be asleep.3 This can occur in overdoses from drugs that slow the central nervous system, such as opioids, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, other sedative-hypnotics, and alcohol.3,4,5,6 In the case of alcohol overdose, a person who is passed out may be left by friends to “sleep it off,” however, this can be extremely dangerous as alcohol levels may continue to rise even after drinking has stopped. Without help, the person may suffer lasting brain damage, may choke on their own vomit, and may die.5

Breathing Changes

  • Normally, people breathe in and breathe out in a regular rhythm. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, normal breathing rates range from 12 breaths to 16 breaths per minute in an adult at rest. Someone in the midst of an overdose from a drug like heroin, alcohol, or prescription CNS depressants may breathe much slower than this, breathe irregularly, or stop breathing altogether.3,4,5
  • Overdosing on drugs like cocaine or prescription stimulants may lead to breathing rapidly or trouble breathing.7,8

Body Temperature Changes

  • The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that normal body temperatures can range from about 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.9 A person in the middle of an overdose may feel cold or clammy. The skin, lips, and nails might appear blue, which is a major warning sign that the person is in danger. This may occur in the case of opioid overdose, alcohol overdose, or other overdoses.5,1
  • Increased temperatures may indicate overdose from stimulants such as cocaine or prescription stimulants.7,8


  • Vomiting can help expel a toxic substance from the gastrointestinal system, so while it feels bad, it can serve an important purpose.10 Unfortunately, people suffering from an overdose can, and sometimes do, vomit while they are not awake. That could lead to choking on their own vomit, which could lead to very serious consequences, including brain damage or death.5

Rapid, Slow, or Irregular Heartbeat

  • Different drugs impact the heart in different ways. For example, stimulant drugs can cause the heart to race or an irregular heartbeat.8 On the other hand, people who take opioids such as heroin or morphine or drink too much might have a dangerously slowed heart rate or irregular heart rhythm.5,11 You can most easily check a person’s pulse on their wrist or neck. A normal adult resting rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute.2,3

Chest Pain

  • Stimulant overdose may result in chest pain, palpitations, and even heart attack or stroke.7,12

Anxiety, Agitation, or Confusion


  • Overdose from certain drugs such as stimulants and alcohol are associated with seizure risk.5,12 If someone is experiencing a seizure, call 911 and stay with the person until medical personnel arrive.


  • Overdose from drugs like stimulants or cannabis may result in the onset of hallucinations,13 in which a person sees, hears, smells, or feels things that aren’t there. Hallucinations may lead to injuries resulting from accidents or self-harm. If you suspect that someone is hallucinating from an overdose, call 911 right away.

Get Help for Addiction at Sunrise House

When the crisis has passed, it may be a good time to attempt to bring up the issue of getting help. The overdose could be the wakeup call that person needs to recover. If you need more information about getting help for drug or alcohol addiction, contact our admissions navigators at today. They can help answer your questions about our drug rehab in Lafayette, NJ, rehab payment options, starting rehab admissions, and helping decide which levels of addiction treatment might be right for you or a loved one.

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