People who take in addictive drugs on a regular basis often find that they need to take more and more of the same drug in order to feel the euphoria they crave. Brain cells become accustomed to the ongoing presence of drugs, and it takes bigger doses to overcome brain cell inertia and deliver a big punch of change with a drug hit. To keep these changed brain cells happy, people need to take bigger drug doses, but those big doses can overwhelm the body’s vital systems. When that happens, people can overdose, and sadly, overdose is common.
According to statistics released as part of International Overdose Awareness Day, 41,340 overdose deaths happened in the United States in 2011 alone. These deaths took hold when people took too much of a drug and their bodies could not handle the change. These deaths could be prevented with quick medical attention. As an article in Today’s Hospitalist points out, clinicians are becoming adept at determining what drugs people have taken based on the symptoms they have when they walk through the doors for care. But clinicians cannot provide that care if patients are not brought in for care.
The Signs of Overdose
- Slow, irregular breathing
- Cool body temperature
- Unusual heart rate
- Chest pain
- Anxiety or disorientation
That means families simply must know what overdose symptoms are. That way, they can provide vital help and attention in the event of an overdose. These are the signs that could indicate that an overdose is happening:
- Unconsciousness: When brain cells are overwhelmed by drugs, they tend to shut down. They cannot do the work they need to do, and they fade out due to the pressure. If enough brain cells shut off in this manner, the person can no longer stay awake and aware. In some cases, a person in the midst of an overdose will seem to be completely asleep. In other cases, a person in the midst of an overdose will seem blunted or stunted. Neither situation is safe. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out, drug toxicity levels can continue to rise, even when a person is no longer awake and conscious. People who drink alcohol and pass out due to alcohol, for example, may still have alcoholic beverages in their stomachs, and those drinks may still be digested. The alcohol that comes from that digestion may hit the bloodstream later.
- Slow, irregular breathing: Each intake of breath brings oxygen to tissues inside the body, and each exhale contains elements the body no longer needs for healthy functioning. Breathing rates can vary throughout the day. When people are exercising or excited, they might breathe very quickly. When they are sleeping or meditating, they might breathe very slowly. In most cases, however, breathing rates tend to be regular. People breathe in and breathe out on a rhythm that is a lot like clockwork. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, normal breathing rates range from 12 breaths to 16 breaths per minute. People in the midst of an overdose might breathe much slower than this, and their breaths might be quite irregular. They might breathe quickly for a few moments, and then they might delay the next breath by several long moments.
- Cool body temperature: When brain cells shut down and breathing rates slow, the movement of blood through the body also begins to slow. If the person is unconscious, muscles are not moving to warm the body back up again. That means people in the middle of an overdose will have a deep dip in overall body temperature. Their bodies cool simply because there is a lot less happening below the surface of the skin. The U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that normal body temperatures can range from about 97 to 100 degrees. There is some variability to be expected from one body to another, but people in the middle of an overdose are often very cold. The surface of the skin feels cold or clammy to the touch, and the skin might even be tinged with the color blue. This is not a normal variation of color. This is a sign that something is deeply and terribly wrong, and a person who sees it might not even need a thermometer to understand that.
- Sweating: Every person sweats regularly. It helps to cool the skin and prevent a sense of overheating. But sweating is also a tool used by the nervous system in the midst of a crisis. When a person goes into shock, the body releases a great deal of sweat as a compensatory response. Someone who is overdosing might be covered with sweat all at once. Sweat may soak through the clothes, or sweat may tumble down the person’s skin in big streams.
- Vomiting: The body has a number of methods it can use in order to provide protection against overdose. Vomiting is one of those protections. By triggering the urge to vomit, the body can try to expel some of the toxins that the person has ingested. With that vomiting, the person might have a better chance of survival. Unfortunately, the urge to vomit can work independently of the ability to stay conscious. That means people can, and do, vomit while they are not awake and able to handle a vomiting episode. That could lead to a variety of problems, according to NHS Choices, including choking on vomit or inhaling vomit. Either or both of these things could lead to very serious consequences, including lung damage or death.
- Unusual heart rate: Different drugs can do different things to the heart. For example, stimulant drugs can cause the heart to race and gallop. People who take too much of these types of drugs may have a pulse rate that is phenomenally fast, and it might even feel like a flutter on the pulse points. On the other hand, people who take in depressant drugs like alcohol or heroin might have heart rates that are remarkably slow. Their hearts might seem as though they are not beating at all, or they might be beating at a very faint rate. Taking a person’s pulse is as easy as pressing fingers to the wrist or throat. These overdose signs are typically clear and obvious, so it might not be necessary for people to keep a stethoscope on hand to listen to the heart beating. A pulse check with fingers should be enough to indicate if there is a problem or if all is well.
- Chest pain: Documents released by International Overdose Awareness Day suggest that some stimulants do such damage to the heart that the heart can respond with signals of pain. A heart that is beating much too quickly can develop small muscle tears, and each tear can come with bleeding and pain. The heart tends to refer signals of pain to the middle of the chest or the arms, and that pain can be overwhelming and intense. That pain is a sign of a medical emergency. When the heart is put under enough pressure, it can stop working altogether. When a heart simply stops working, it stops beating, and when the heart stops beating, death is soon to follow. People feeling this chest pain symptom may clutch at their arms or chests, or they may do a quick gasp of pain before falling over.
- Anxiety or disorientation: Just as overdoses can hit different parts of the body, they can bring about different types of overall symptoms. Up until this point, we have discussed overdoses that tend to cause symptoms of coma or sedation, but there are some overdoses that cause a different type of overall symptom. The National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse reports that some overdoses cause symptoms of severe agitation and disorientation. People in the midst of this type of overdose seem as though they are unaware of what they are doing and where they are going. They may stumble, scream, or cry. They may talk much too quickly and much too loudly. They are overdosing, but it might be misinterpreted as simple aggression.
- Seizures: As brain cell activity is disrupted, sparks of electricity can jump from one part of the brain to another without stopping to touch the cells in the middle. These electrical firestorms of activity within the brain are known as seizures, and they can take hold in the midst of an overdose. A seizure is quite serious, as it causes tissue damage within the cells of the brain. Some people who have seizures simply are not the same in the months and years that follow those seizures. And some people who have seizures do not survive the seizure episodes at all.
- Shivering: A grand-mal seizure is easy to spot, as it involves full-body tremors that overtake the body from head to toe and cause a flipping and flopping on the ground. Shivering is a little different, and in some cases, it is easier to ignore, but a shiver can be considered a form of mini-seizure. People in the early stages of an overdose might be beset by shivering. They might have shaking hands and feet, and their teeth might chatter and clap together. They might not feel cold, but they might look as though they have spent a great deal of time in some kind of cold environment. This is a shivering episode that could be caused by an overdose.
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An overdose is considered a life-threatening emergency. As the University of Texas at Austin points out, people should not intervene in the midst of a seizure without a clear plan of action. That means people who have taken drugs themselves and who might feel a little impulsive due to those drugs should not be encouraged to make key decisions for the person who is overdosing. Preferably, a sober individual will be on hand to help. That person should assess the situation, call 911 for help, and follow the instructions of that 911 operator to the letter. In a perfect world, the sober person will have a sample of the drugs the person has taken, and the person can describe those drugs to the operator. But if not, the person can describe symptoms. A 911 operator can talk through next steps and send an ambulance for help. If a sober individual is not present, anyone can call 911 for help, regardless of one’s intoxication level.
When the crisis has passed, the cost of addiction should be discussed with the person who went through the overdose. They should be directed to resources that can help. The overdose could be the wakeup call the person needs to recover. Families should take note and take action.
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