What is an Overdose?

Overdose (OD) happens when a toxic amount of a drug, or combination of drugs overwhelms the body. Heroin and other downers affect the body's central nervous system, which slows breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate, and in turn reduces body temperature. In an opiate overdose, the breathing slows to the point of respiratory arrest where the lack of oxygen to the brain leads to the loss of consciousness, coma, or death. In a stimulant overdose drugs like speed, cocaine, and ecstasy raise the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature, and speed up breathing. This can lead to a seizure, stroke, heart attack or death.

Anyone who uses drugs can overdose, from the first-time user to the veteran.

But overdoses don't have to be fatal!

Risk Factors and Prevention Tips

Mixing Drugs (poly-substance use)
Drugs taken together can interact in ways that increase their overall effect. Using drugs that have the same effects on the body can be deadly. Such combinations include cocaine with other stimulants like speed and ecstasy, or using alcohol with heroin and other downers. Many overdoses occur when people mix heroin and/or alcohol with benzodiazepines such as Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax. Most fatal overdoses are the result of poly-drug use.

Prevention: Use one drug at a time, or use less of each drug. Do your heroin first and pace your drinking.

Tolerance (your body's ability to process a certain amount of a drug)
Tolerance develops over time, so the amount of a drug a long-time user needs to feel the drug's effects is a lot greater than a newer user. Tolerance also wavers depending on several factors including, weight, size, illness, stress, compromised immune system (from hepatitis for example), and age. Your tolerance actually decreases over time, which is why there are more deaths among older users. Most importantly, tolerance can decrease rapidly when someone has taken a break from using a substance whether intentionally while in drug treatment or on methadone detox, or unintentionally while in jail or the hospital. Research has also shown that tolerance is effected when a person uses drugs in a new or unfamiliar environment, and therefore at a higher risk for overdose.

Prevention: Use less when you are sick or took a break from using. Do a tester shot, or split your dope in half and wait.

Quality (how pure a drug is)
The content and purity of street drugs is always unpredictable. They are often "cut" with other drugs or materials that can be dangerous. You can't tell how pure your drugs are from looking at it, and purity levels are always changing, which means you can do a shot that's a lot stronger than what you are used to and put yourself at risk of an overdose.

Prevention: Do a tester shot, release the tourniquet, and try to buy from the same dealer so you have a better idea of what you're getting.

Using Alone
While using alone isn't necessarily a cause of overdose, it increases the chance of fatally overdosing because there is no one there to call for help or take care of you if you go out. Many fatal overdoses have occurred behind closed or locked doors where the victims could not be found and no one was there to intervene.

Prevention: FIX WITH A FRIEND! Develop an overdose plan with your friends or partners, leave the door unlocked or slightly ajar, call someone you trust and have them check on you, and if you do use alone and feel yourself going out, call 911

How do you know if someone is really high or overdosing?

If someone is really high and using downers like heroin, alcohol, and pills...

  • Muscles are slack and droopy
  • They might "nod out"
  • Speech may be slurred
  • Pupils will contract and appear small
  • They might be out of it, but they will respond to outside stimulus like loud noise or a push
  • Scratch a lot due to itchy skin

If someone is really high and using stimulants like speed, cocaine, or ecstasy...

  • Pupils will be enlarged
  • Very alert and energetic, euphoric
  • They might be paranoid and agitated
  • Decreased appetite

If someone is overdosing their symptoms may look like this...

  • May be awake, but unable to talk
  • Body is very limp
  • Face is very pale or clammy
  • Fingernails and lips turn blue or purple
  • Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
  • Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all
  • Choking sounds, or a gurgling noise
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Unresponsive to outside stimulus
  • Pressure, tightness or pain in chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache, ringing in the ears, dizziness
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Profuse sweating, or failure to sweat
  • Racing pulse
  • Grossly enlarged pupils
  • Muscle cramps
  • Inability to urinate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shaking, or seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

Depressants and sedatives slow down your heart rate and breathing.A person who overdoses on a depressant may pass out, stop breathing, or choke on their vomit—any of which can lead to death. Sometimes you can hear a person's raspy breathing and know they're having problems. If they've stopped breathing, you may not know it, but if they begin to turn blue, they may be very close to dying and need immediate attention—rescue breathing or CPR. The most important thing is to act right away and don't hesitate to call 911!

If the person is still conscious, walk them around, keep them awake, and monitor their breathing.If they pass out and become unresponsive call 911!

If the person is unconscious, try to wake them up by calling their name, or yelling "Narcan!"If they do not respond try waking them with pain stimulus by pinching their ear, under their arm, or rubbing their sternum with your knuckles. Be sure to check their breathing. Put your face over theirs and feel for air against your cheek while watching to see if their chest rises and falls. If they are not breathing, put the person in the recovery position and go call 911!

Tips on calling 911

Many of us are afraid to call 911 when someone we know ODs. You may have had a bad experience with paramedics, or heard stories about people being arrested when the cops came. But if you don't know how to do rescue breathing and/or CPR (or don't want to), and you don't have Narcan, calling 911 may be the only way to save the person's life. Here are a few tips for calling:

When calling 911...

  • Quiet down the scene.
  • Speak calmly and clearly. The more things appear to be under control the less likely the cops will be sent.
  • Tell the dispatcher that the victim is unconscious and not breathing or turning blue.
  • Tell them exactly where you and the victim are, the address and room number. If you are outside, give them the nearest street intersection and a landmark, as much information as possible to help them get to you. If you're squatting, send someone out to the street to wait for the ambulance.

You do not have to tell the dispatcher...

  • Your name (give them an alias if they ask)
  • That it's an overdose
  • Or that drugs are involved

Once the paramedics arrive, tell them as much as you know about what drugs the person was using. For many of you, hiding your stuff before anyone comes (especially anything that might have residue like cookers, cottons, empty bags, etc.) is standard practice. Be calm and respectful, let them do their job. If the cops come too, remain calm, don't have an attitude and be as honest as you can without getting yourself into trouble.

If you're afraid of the cops, absolutely cannot stay and no one else is around...

You can still call 911! If you're on the street or in a park, calling from a pay phone is pretty anonymous.

Try to get a passerby to help before you leave.

If you are inside a building and you can do it without hurting your friend, take them into the street, or the building doorway. The easier it is for the paramedics to get to them, the better. (Remember to put them in the recovery position!)

If you can't move your friend, you can stay until you hear the sirens get really close, then split. Just make sure paramedics can get to them: leave the door open or put a note up, etc. (Again, remember to put them in the recovery position before you leave!)

If you have naloxone...

  1. Can you get to it? If you have to leave the victim, remember to put them in the recovery position.
  2. Draw the naloxone up into the syringe.1cc of 0.4mg/mL naloxone can be enough, but you can always draw up more and administer 1cc first, evaluate and then give them another dose.
  3. Naloxone can be administered into the muscle, so you don't have to find a vein. The best places to inject are in the arm (deltoid), thigh (quadriceps), or butt (gluteus).
  4. If you have an alcohol swab, clean the area, if not administer the shot anyway at a 90° angle.
  5. Begin rescue breathing.

*Naloxone should kick in pretty quickly, but it could take a few minutes for the victim to come out of it. If they don't wake up and resume breathing within a few minutes, give them a second dose.

*In the meantime, it's important that you breathe for them.

Rescue breathing

After you've called 911 and/or administered naloxone, start rescue breathing. Turn the person over onto their back, tilt their head back gently to open the airway. Check their mouth to make sure nothing is blocking their throat. Pinch their nose and give 2 slow breaths. Each breath should last 1 ½ to 2 seconds and you should see their chest rise and fall. Wait 5 seconds and give 1 slow breath. Continue to give them 1 slow breath every 5 seconds until the paramedics arrive. If someone else is with you, take turns breathing until help arrives. Remember: rescue breathing is very important and can determine whether someone lives or dies.It only takes a few minutes without oxygen for permanent brain damage to occur.

If your friend comes to and starts breathing again, stay with them and monitor their breathing. They can still slip back into an overdose!

If your friend comes to and starts breathing again, stay with them and monitor their breathing. They can still slip back into an overdose!

What NOT to do if someone overdoses

Do Not put the person in an ice cold bath, it could put them into shock, or they could drown. If they are still breathing, you can put them under a cool shower to wake them, but stay with them and keep the water away from their nose and mouth.

Do Not inject them with salt water or milk, it won't revive them and in the time it takes to find a vein you could be rescue breathing or trying to wake them up.

Do Not inject someone overdosing on heroin with speed or cocaine. It's not a good use of time and can make them worse.It's one more drug their body has to deal with.

Now that you know the basics, talk to your friends or partner so you both know what to do if you or someone you care about overdoses. Come up with a plan that you can realistically use in the event of an overdose.

About Naloxone

Naloxone, commonly called Narcan®, is a drug used to counter the effects of an opiate (i.e. heroin or morphine) overdose. It has been the standard care for emergency departments and paramedics for the past few decades. Naloxone works by binding to the opioid receptor in the brain and reversing the depression of the central nervous and respiratory systems. It "tricks" the brain into thinking there are no opiates in the body. If someone is overdosing on an opiate, administering naloxone can speed up their breathing and temporarily bring them out of an overdose.

Naloxone sends people with a habit into immediate withdrawal, which can be really uncomfortable. That person may want to go and fix again because they can't feel the dope in their system, but using more can send them back into an overdose, since the opiates are still in their system. Reassure them that they will start to feel the dope again in about 45 minutes and their sick feeling will go away. Don't let them use again and keep an eye on them because once it wears off they are still at risk of overdosing.Remember naloxone only works on opiates, not speed or benzodiazepines like Klonopin or Valium.

Naloxone is a non-scheduled prescription medication. While it is not currently available in the U.S without a prescription, there are dozens of harm reduction programs around the country distributing legal prescriptions of naloxone to drug users and their family and friends as part of overdose prevention and education.

Naloxone saves lives. If you or your friends have experienced an overdose before, or at risk of an overdose, it may be a good idea to get a naloxone kit from your nearest syringe exchange program if they have it. Talk to staff about how and when to use naloxone and how you can get more if you use or lose it.