How to Save a Life: 10 Signs of an Overdose and What to Do

signs of an overdose

2017 was the worst year for drug overdoses with around 200 people dying per day in the US.

And, unfortunately, these numbers continued to rise through 2018 and will likely continue to rise through 2019 as well.

If you have a loved one who is an addict, the chances of them dying from an overdose are unfortunately very real. While the best thing to do is to get your loved one into a detox center and get them help for their addiction, this doesn’t always happen.

If you are worried about your loved one overdosing, it is very important to be aware of the signs of an overdose as well as what you should do if you witness one.

Read on to learn the 10 signs of an overdose as well as what to do if a loved one has an overdose.

The Signs of An Overdose

The signs of an overdose can vary slightly depending on the type of drug the person has in their system.

However, there are some general signs to look out for that will alert you someone has overdosed and that they need medical attention. Let’s look at the most common signs.

1. Unconsciousness

When we think of an overdose, we usually think of someone lying on the ground unconscious.

And, this is actually a fairly accurate image as overdoses nearly always render one unconscious.

This is because when large of amounts of depressants that affect the central nervous system are taken, like alcohol, sedatives, or opiates, the brain begins to shut off. When the brain begins to shut off, we slip into a state of unconsciousness.

This is why a large number of people who overdose actually just appear to be sleeping. And, this is also why overdose can be so dangerous-sometimes people will encounter a loved one who has overdosed, only to mistake them for being asleep.

Therefore, being aware of all the signs of overdose is very important.

2. Cool Body Temperature

When we’re sleeping, our body temperature does not lower that much. However, when someone overdoses, that’s a different story.

When the brain begins to shut down, so too does the movement of blood through the body. And, if the person who has overdosed is also unconscious, they will not be moving their muscles in order to warm their body back up.

This causes their overall body temperature to drop. In fact, if you come upon someone who has overdosed, you will likely find their skin to be cold to the touch. And, their skin and nails may even have a blue tint to them.

3. Slower, Irregular Breathing

Just like the slowing down of the brain slows the flow of blood, so it also slows down one’s breathing.

However, breathing rates do tend to vary throughout the day. For example, when someone is exercising, their breathing rates will be much higher. When someone is sleeping, their breathing rates will be much slower.

So what’s the difference when someone overdoses?

The difference is that in addition to slower breathing, an overdose is also accompanied by irregular breathing. In some cases, breathing may cease altogether.

4. Profuse Sweating

Profuse sweating is another big indicator that someone has overdosed.

While sweating is usually a healthy activity as it helps the body release toxins and prevents the skin from overheating, sweating profusely is usually a sign that something unhealthy is occurring, such as an overdose.

When someone overdoses on stimulants, such as meth, cocaine, or amphetamines, their body temperature will rise extremely high, causing excessive amounts of sweat. Someone who has overdosed may have soaked hair or clothes that are soaked through.

5. Chest Pain

Abusing stimulants can cause a lot of stress on someone’s heart. When an addict overdoses, they may find themselves in a severe amount of chest pain.

Sometimes, this chest pain is nothing more but extreme pain. Oftentimes, however, the chest pain can indicate a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.

6. Seizures

If someone you know is abusing stimulants, an overdose can also lead to a seizure.

Seizures are very serious as they can cause damage to your tissues in the brain, and they can even result in death. Therefore, if you come upon someone experiencing a seizure, addict or not, it is very important that you call 911 immediately.

7. Vomiting

When someone overdoses, they are essentially poisoning themselves. One of the many miraculous things about our bodies is that they have mechanisms to protect us against poisoning, such as vomiting.

If you see a loved one vomiting profusely, it may be that their body is rejecting the toxins. While this can often increase their chances of survival, vomiting can sometimes be dangerous.

People can and do vomit while they are unconscious, this can lead to choking as well as inhaling the vomit, which in turn can lead to damage to the lungs or even death.

8. Disorientation and Anxiety

While someone who has overdosed on depressants will not likely experience disorientation and anxiety, it is very common for those on stimulants to experience this.

People who have overdosed on stimulants often find themselves unaware of what is going on and what they are doing. They might act in an aggressive or violent manner, even if they regularly do not behave this way. Their behavior can oftentimes be unpredictable and sometimes even dangerous toward others.

It may almost seem like the person is in a state of hysteria as they may be talking very quickly and making little sense.

9. Hallucinations

Many people only think those who take hallucinogens (ie, LSD, mushrooms) experience hallucinations.

However, overdosing on stimulants, like meth or cocaine, can also lead to hallucinations. Hallucinations occur when someone hears, smells, or sees something that is not really there.

When someone is hallucinating, they disconnect from reality, and while their behavior may feel normal to them, to others it appears erratic and dangerous. In fact, sometimes when someone is hallucinating, they will attempt to do something which feels safe and sane at the moment but is actually dangerous and harmful.

If you suspect that someone is hallucinating, it is very important that you stay by their side.

10. Slow or Rapid Heart Rate

If you suspect that someone has overdosed, it is also very important to check their heart rate.

A person’s heart rate will often slow down or speed up if they’ve overdosed, depending on what type of drug they’ve done. If they’ve overdosed on stimulants, their heart will likely start racing. If you touch the pulse points, it may even feel like it’s fluttering.

On the other hand, if someone has overdosed on depressants, such as heroin or alcohol, their heart rate will likely slow down a great deal. If you feel their pulse, it will likely be very faint. And sometimes, the pulse will stop altogether.

What to Do If You Witness an Overdose

Oftentimes, when someone overdoses, they will not exhibit just one of these signs, but several or more.

If you see someone displaying the signs of an overdose, it is very important that you act fast. But, just exactly what do you need to do?

Let’s take a look.

Call 911

If you think you or someone you love has overdosed, the very first thing you should do is call 911.

Even if you are not positive, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Also, if you are underage or there are illegal substances in the home, absolutely do not let that stop you from calling 911.

The consequences of leaving someone who has overdosed unattended are far worse than the consequences you’ll receive for using illegal substances. Don’t worry about the person who has overdosed or about anyone else being angry at you for calling 911. Trust us, in the long run, these people will be thanking you.

In fact, many states now have medical amnesty laws, in which someone underage cannot be prosecuted for illegal drinking if they call 911 for medical help.

After Calling 911

After you call 911, you will still need to call the person until help arrives. Here’s what you should do after placing the call to 911.

1. Check the person’s heart rate and breathing. You can check their heart rate by placing two fingers to the side of their neck or to their wrist and counting the beats.

2. If the person appears to be unconscious, try to get some sort of response out of them. Ask the person simple questions that will help you gauge their level of alertness as well as their level of understanding as to what’s going on.

3. If the person is responsive, try to get as much information out of them as possible. For example, try to find out what they took to overdose and how much they think they took.

4. If you find that the person is not breathing, you will want to turn them on their side. There’s a good chance that if they are not breathing, they have vomit stuck in their throat that they need to get out.

5. If necessary and if you are medically qualified to do so, provide them with CPR.

6. Stay by the person the entire time. This is especially important because you want to make sure they don’t engage in any more dangerous behavior, such as taking more substances.

7. Know that this is not a time to reasons with the person or to give them a lecture about their behavior or what your opinion is on the situation. Instead, your job is to remain calm and to assure the person that help is on its way.

8. If the substance the person used to overdose has a label on it, make sure you take the container with you to the ER, even if it is empty. Knowing what the exact drug is can be of great help to doctors.

Prevention

Of course, the best way to handle an overdose is to prevent one from happening in the first place.

While there is only so much you can do to prevent a loved one from overdosing, here are a few simple steps you can take (these apply to yourself as well):

  • Be aware of the drugs and dosage of drugs you or your loved one is taking
  • If it’s a substance you haven’t taken in a while, be sure to start with a low dose of it
  • Avoid using multiple substances at the same time-for example, prescription drugs and alcohol
  • Taking the drugs in the presence of someone else. That way, if an overdose does occur, someone will be there to help you

The best way to prevent overdosing is to seek professional help. Some of the different treatment options include the following:

Detox

Detox is the process in which you receive medically supervised support managing the withdrawal process.

Withdrawal can actually be a very dangerous process, and it’s about a lot more than just avoiding cravings. In fact, heavy drug users often get very sick during the withdrawal process. Therefore, it is important to do it in a medically-supervised setting.

Treatment Programs

After the detox process is complete, signing up for either an inpatient or outpatient treatment program is the best move.

Inpatient treatment programs involve living in a highly-structured facility for a few weeks to a few months. In these facilities, you will have support and care around the clock. Days will consist of individual counseling, group therapy, exercise, motivational speakers, and classes on relapse education.

Some people opt for outpatient treatment instead of inpatient. Outpatient treatment involves attending group and individual therapy a few nights per week.

Support Groups

After completing a treatment program, many recovering addicts find it best to join a support group, such as AA.

You can come to these meetings as often as you wish, and during them, you will discuss with others the highs and lows of your addiction and recovery.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, many of the signs of overdose are quite dangerous. But, as we also discussed, preventing an overdose is definitely possible.

If you have any questions about these signs or about what to do when someone overdoses, be sure to drop a comment below.

Otherwise, if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one overdosing, please be sure to get in contact with us today.

Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.