Drug overdose is a serious condition that can be life-threatening.
Last year, for instance, the United States saw a startling increase of 30 percent in total drug overdose deaths, from 70,630 fatal overdoses in 2019 to over 90,000 in 2020.
But not all cases of drug overdose lead to deadly outcomes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of suspected nonfatal drug overdoses in the U.S. also increased in several months of 2020—even as the number of total emergency department visits declined.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic evolved into a global public health crisis.
But recent data on drug overdose shows that, behind closed doors, a second crisis of drug relapse, substance abuse, and accidental overdose began to emerge.
What Is Nonfatal Drug Overdose?
Nonfatal drug overdose refers to a drug overdose that does not lead to death.
In other words, this is when a person experiences drug overdose and, with or without medical treatment, makes a full or partial recovery.
Typically, nonfatal cases of overdose occur at a higher rate than deadly overdose.
The Minnesota Department of Health, for instance, recently reported a ratio of 14:1 last year, or 14 nonfatal drug overdoses reported for every one overdose death.
The state saw an 18 percent increase last year in nonfatal, emergency-department treated nonfatal drug overdoses, from 6,196 in 2019 to 7,290 in 2020.
What Causes Drug Overdose?
Put simply, drug overdose is a reaction that can occur within the body when a person takes too much of one or more drugs.
Drugs commonly involved in overdose include:
- opioid drugs
- other prescription sedatives
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been involved in a majority of fatal drug overdoses in recent years, sometimes combined with illicit stimulants, benzodiazepines, or other opioids.
Opioids in particular are also frequently involved in cases of nonfatal overdose.
But what drives harmful substance use behaviors, including excessive or compulsive drug use, is more complex.
Here are factors that can play a role in nonfatal and fatal drug overdose:
Taking Drugs Laced With Fentanyl
Unlike prescription drugs, the production of illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine is not regulated.
As a result, batches of illicit drugs will often be mixed with adulterants or fillers, including drugs like fentanyl, which is about 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Taking drugs laced with synthetic drugs, unfortunately, can be very dangerous and could result in accidental overdose.
Having A Low Tolerance
People with a low drug tolerance, including those fresh out of detox, are at higher risk of experiencing drug overdose than those who have a tolerance built up.
Low tolerance means that your body will respond to the effects of a drug in smaller doses than someone with higher tolerance.
With most drugs, including alcohol, our bodies can develop a higher tolerance for a drug over time, if that drug is used chronically and frequently.
Certain populations, however—including children and the elderly—are more likely to have low drug tolerance and can, as a result, be more vulnerable to overdose.
Experimenting with drugs, particularly illicit drugs that may contain any number of ingredients, carries with it a risk for overdose.
Who can be at risk for this:
- young adults
- college students
- people who are stressed
- people with mental illness
Lack Of Access To Treatment
People with substance use disorders—also known as drug addiction—are at higher risk for drug overdose if they don’t have access to drug treatment services.
Common barriers to drug abuse treatment include:
- cost of treatment
- transportation barriers
- lack of treatment options in your area
- lack of cultural competency
- failure of medical providers to identify substance abuse
- confidentiality concerns and stigma
Last year, coronavirus-related travel restrictions and concerns about virus spread also became a barrier to treatment.
This affected access to treatment at rehab centers, hospitals, outpatient counseling centers, as well as access to recovery support groups.
This, at least in part, is believed to be a contributor to the rise in overdoses last year, along with greater isolation, stress, and reports of poorer mental health.
Relapsing after a period of abstinence isn’t uncommon among those in addiction recovery. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of those who have received treatment relapse at least once.
Due to low tolerance from that period of abstinence, however, relapse can place a person at a heightened risk of suffering overdose.
Why and how relapse occurs varies for each person. Stress, for instance, is a common trigger for relapse, as is loneliness, boredom, and other major life changes.
The Scope Of Drug Relapse During COVID-19
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a national reckoning with racial injustice, upended the lives of millions living in the United States.
The U.S. population suffered widespread job loss. Businesses were shuttered. Schools shut down. And it became more difficult for people with substance use and mental health disorders to access treatment.
Research shows that people with substance use disorders are at higher risk for relapse when they are isolated, suffering emotional distress, or cut off from treatment services.
With restrictions on access to support services, and stress levels on the rise, treatment providers across the U.S. reported seeing a higher prevalence of relapse last year, and increased demand for help.
How To Identify Signs Of Drug Overdose
Signs of drug overdose can vary depending on the type of drug used and other personal factors.
However, there are some common signs you can look for, particularly in changes to vital signs.
Signs of drug overdose may include:
- slow or stopped breathing
- unusual changes in heart rate
- weak pulse
- low blood pressure
- loss of consciousness
- gurgling noises
- pale or ashen skin
- very high or low body temperature
If someone you know is having difficulty breathing, has stopped breathing, or is unresponsive after taking drugs, call 911 for emergency assistance right away.
What Treatments Are Available For Overdose?
Drug overdose, in many cases, can be effectively treated if identified early and if treatment is sought for it right away.
Treatment For Opioid Overdose
Opioid drugs like fentanyl, carfentanil, and heroin are involved in over half of all overdose deaths nationwide.
When opioids are involved, the primary treatment for overdose is Narcan, or naloxone. This overdose reversal drug can block effects of opioids in the brain and reverse opioid overdose.
Narcan is a drug that can be injected or inserted up the nose. In some parts of the country, this drug is available at pharmacies, without a prescription.
Treatment For Other Types Of Drug Overdose
The type of treatment provided for drug overdose will depend on the type(s) of drug taken, amount taken, and demonstrated symptoms of drug overdose.
Treatment for drug overdose may require:
- a physical assessment
- overdose reversal medication
- activated charcoal
- stomach pump
- inpatient hospitalization
If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, the best way to seek help is to call 9-1-1, poison control, or your local emergency center.
Can I Get In Trouble For Calling In An Overdose?
Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have a ‘Good Samaritan’ law on record to encourage people to call for help for an overdose when it occurs.
What this does, essentially, is provide legal protection for people who call 911 to report a drug overdose, with additional caveats in certain states.
Find Help For An Alcohol Or Drug Addiction Today
We know it’s difficult to ask for help, let alone to find a treatment program that’s right for you or a loved one who is struggling with their drug or alcohol use.
Call our helpline now to find treatment options for drug or alcohol abuse at a treatment center near you.Article Sources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Vital Statistics Rapid Release - Provisional Drug Overdose Data
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Suspected Nonfatal Drug Overdoses during COVID-19
- Minnesota State Department of Health — News release: Nonfatal drug overdoses increased during COVID-19 pandemic