Opioid Overdose Symptoms & How to Combat an Overdose
Opioids are drugs naturally derived from the opium poppy plants or synthetically produced in a lab. Prescription opioids are safe when used for a short period and per the directions on the prescription. After you have had major surgery, your doctor might prescribe opioids to ease the pain. Some health care providers prescribe the drugs for people suffering from severe pain due to conditions like cancer.
However, any person who takes opioids for whatever reasons is at risk of an overdose. In 2019, about 49,860 people died due to opioid overdose in the United States, according to a report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Luckily, opioid overdose is preventable and treatable when you detect the signs early enough.
How Do Opioids Work?
Opioids work by attaching themselves to the nerve cells in the gut, brain, spinal cord, or other body parts. Therefore, they block the movement of pain signals from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. Besides relieving pain, opioids also make people feel relaxed, happy, and high. At a lower dose, the drug can make you feel sleepy. The feeling of relaxation derived from opioids can tempt you to take the drug more often, leading to addiction or overdose.
What Is an Opioid Overdose?
An overdose happens when a person takes a higher opioid quantity than the body can manage. At the end of 1990, the pharmaceutical companies reassured doctors and the public that opioids couldn’t cause addiction when used as pain relievers. As a result, the health care practitioners prescribed opioids at higher rates, leading to drug misuse. Opioid overdose cases began to increase by 2017, and it became clear that the drugs could be highly addictive.
Around 64% to 97% of opioid users have experienced at least one incidence of overdose. Death due to opioid overdose occurs between one to three hours of ingestion, so there is an opportunity for rescue.
Common Causes of Opioid Overdose
Opioid overdose can occur due to intentional misuse of the drug or accidental overuse. Children are at a higher risk of accidental overdose. Minor children may swallow the drugs out of curiosity. Keep in mind that kids below five years of age tend to place everything they find into their mouths. When you carelessly leave your opioids within children’s reach, your toddler might take them and even share them with other children. Accidental overdose may also happen when people with impaired mental abilities take and swallow opioids.
An overdose can happen when you take an extra dose of a prescription opioid or when you take it too often. If you purposefully take opioids to get high, you risk an overdose. This is also the case when you mix the drugs with other medications, alcohol, or other illegal substances. Note that the overdose is fatal if you mix opioids with anxiety treatment medication like Valium.
People might also purposefully take a higher opioid dose to hurt themselves. This is an attempted suicide that could be the result of some undiagnosed mental condition.
Who Is at Risk of Opioid Overdose?
Any person who takes opioids either by prescription or illegally is at risk of an overdose. People with other medical conditions, like sleep apnea, mental health issues, advanced HIV, and liver or lung diseases, are also at risk. Many older adults have multiple chronic conditions, so they tend to have more prescription drugs. The rise in the number of medications one has to take increases the likelihood of an unintentional overdose.
According to the World Health Organization, males and people of low economic status are at a higher risk of opioid overdose than women or younger people from a higher socioeconomic status.
Friends and family members of people who regularly use opioids are also at risk. Injecting opioids directly into your veins or crushing and snorting them puts users at a greater risk of an overdose. This method introduces the drug more rapidly into the bloodstream.
Signs and Symptoms of Opioids Overdose
You can potentially save a life by knowing the signs of opioid overdose. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell whether someone is just high on opioids or if he or she had an overdose. There are, however, various distinct characteristics of the two cases.
When individuals are high on opioids, their speech often becomes slurred, but those having an overdose make gurgling or choking sounds. Some people feel sleepy when high on opioids, but overdoses cause the victims to exhibit heavy nodding. When a person is high, he or she can respond to stimulations like pinching or yelling, but one becomes unresponsive in case of an overdose.
If someone is having an opioid overdose, the skin appears pale and clammy. Opioid overdose affects the respiratory system, which leads to shallow breathing. The person may also lose consciousness, and the body becomes very limp. Others vomit, and their heartbeats become slower than normal.
People with a lighter skin tone begin to turn bluish-purple whereas those with darker skin turn grayish. A person who is having an opioid overdose may also seem awake, but he or she can’t talk or move. Look at the pupils, and they appear extremely small and constricted. For others, the lips and nails begin to discolor.
The Risks Associated With Opioid Overdose
Once the drugs get into the bloodstream, they can cause the veins to collapse, which interferes with blood flow. Also, the high accumulation of opioids in the brain limits oxygen flow, which can cause permanent brain damage within a short period. An overdose can cause seizures, which also damages the brain.
Oxygen deprivation and slower breathing rates trigger abnormal heart rhythms, which can cause cardiac arrest. Fluids will also start filling up the air spaces in the lungs, which can cause foaming at the mouth. Some people will experience their gag reflex, and this can affect their ability to spit or swallow, leading to choking, especially if you are vomiting. There are many ways to help a person who has had an opioid overdose to avoid such effects. If someone responds fast when an opioid user has an overdose, the chances of death are rare.
Steps to Prevent Opioid Overdose
There are various ways in which you can use opioids safely to prevent overdose. Take the drugs as prescribed by your doctor. Open up to your physician if you have had a history of addiction. In such a case, your health care provider can prescribe a less-addictive medication. While taking opioids, watch out for side effects like shortness of breath, loss of consciousness, and slower heart rate, and inform your doctor immediately.
If you have other underlying medical conditions, ask your physician whether it’s safe to take opioids. Never share your prescription with friends or family. Properly dispose of the opioids once you are done using them so that they don’t land in the wrong hands. You can flush the pills down the toilet or take them to pharmacies that provide drop-off boxes. Don’t leave your opioids in open cabinets accessible to everyone. Children may confuse them for candies and swallow the pills, or other family members might misuse them.
What to Do in Case of an Overdose
Opioid overdose is an emergency that requires immediate attention. If a person near you shows any of the above opioid overdose symptoms, shake that individual and shout to check for responsiveness. If you fail to get a response, try rubbing your knuckles on the victim’s breastbone.
Immediately call 911 to get medical assistance. No one will charge you for possession of an illegal drug while calling for help in case of an overdose. If the patient responds, try to keep him or her awake. Keep the victim in the recovery position. Have him or her lie on one side with the mouth facing downwards, one hand extending forward to support the head, and the other on the chest. For the leg on top, keep it bent and stabilized to prevent rolling onto the stomach.
Oxygen deprivation is a fatal issue with an overdose. Hence, you should ensure that the victim has an open airway free from obstructions. If you notice that the person isn’t breathing or if his or her pulse rate is very low, perform CPR. Place your hands on top of each other over the victim’s chest. Push them down vigorously at a rate of 100 times per minute.
Administer two rescue breaths, and then continue with compression. Tilt the person’s head backward, pinch the nose, and breathe into the mouth. Keep repeating the CPR cycle until the person exhibits signs of life.
If you have naloxone, you can give it to the victim. This is a lifesaving medication with the intended purpose to reverse the effects of opioid overdose. Read through the manufacturer’s instructions to learn how to administer the drug. You can either inject naloxone into the victim’s muscles or spray it through the nose to counter the effects of opioids in the body.
Naloxone mainly restores breathing and reverses sedation or unconsciousness. This will help buy some time before the emergency health service providers arrive. Naloxone will work within two to eight minutes, depending on the person’s metabolism.
Stay with the victim until the ambulance arrives. Once paramedics come, ensure that you tell them everything you know about the situation to help in treatment. After the patient receives medical care, it’s a good idea that he or she seeks help from a facility like First Recovery Center. This is particularly necessary if the overdose was due to an addiction or prescription drug abuse or if the patient has underlying mental issues.
At the facility, you will undergo either of the following programs:
1. Medical Detoxification
First Recovery Center provides a heroin addiction treatment program since this is one of the most commonly abused opioids. If the overdose victim has a history of addiction, he or she will first have to undergo detoxification. This process involves flushing out the drug’s toxins.
If you suddenly stop using opioids, you might experience withdrawal symptoms like muscle aches, nausea, diarrhea, and sweating. Our recovery center provides patients with a safe environment where medical practitioners constantly monitor them to manage withdrawal symptoms.
2. Inpatient Rehab
Once you visit First Recovery Center, you will undergo examination for a possible dual diagnosis of any other behavioral or mental disorders that could cause dependence or overdose. Depending on the nature of your condition, the doctor may advise that you opt for an inpatient program. For this treatment option, you live in the treatment center for a determined period.
While you are in our facility, you will receive 24/7 care, and the chances of relapse are minimal. You will undergo individual therapy sessions during which your counselor will help you better understand your condition. The main aim is for you to develop healthier coping strategies to guide you toward achieving long-term sobriety.
You will also participate in group therapy to interact with other people dealing with similar issues to yours. Therapy’s main aim is to address any traumatic life experience that could lead to opioid overdose or addiction. Your counselor will help you deal with anxiety and depression. You will also learn how to develop resilience from negative life circumstances.
3. Outpatient Treatment Program
First Recovery Center also offers an outpatient treatment program where patients reside at home and only come to the rehab facility for treatment at the agreed-upon time. For the day program, the patient should attend sessions at least five days a week.
The patient will participate in both individual and group therapies. This treatment program also involves family therapy. The counselor will help your family members better understand your situation to give you the necessary support that aids in recovery.
Death following opioid overdose is preventable if people can detect the symptoms early enough, give first aid, and seek medical help on time. Even if you take opioids for medical reasons, your family members should learn how to respond to an overdose because you are at risk. People who struggle with prescription drug abuse should seek help from facilities like First Recovery Center. Our institution offers addiction treatment for people struggling with substance use disorder to help them regain freedom from drug abuse and mental illnesses.
Dr. Vahid Osman, MD is a psychiatry specialist in Indianapolis, IN.
Dr. Osman completed a residency at Austin State Hospital. He has over 32 years of experience in Psychiatry & Behavioral Health. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.