What Happens When You Overdose?

For anyone who has ever experienced substance abuse themselves, or with a loved one, instead of asking “what happens when you do drugs,” the better question should be “what happens when you overdose,” because the threat of taking too much is very real.

To put it in perspective, in 2020, Missouri ranked 32nd in the United States for drug overdose death rates and is the number one leading cause of death among adults aged 18-44 in the state.

The nature of substance abuse is such that the line between being safe and going into dangerous territory is all but discernible. Once the high kicks in, little else matters to the person taking the substance. On top of this, most substances tend to induce greater tolerance in people the more they take them.

The sheer number of overdose cases has made it a major concern for the US government, with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posting provisional data indicating an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the United States during 2021. This is an increase of nearly 15% from the estimated 93,655 overdose-related deaths from the previous year.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics released a breakdown of the relevant overdose-related deaths for both 2021 and 2020, with Fentanyl having the most documented deaths in 2021 at 71,238, which is a jump from the 57,834 posted during 2020.

This is followed by overdose deaths caused by psychostimulants, more popularly known as meth, with an estimated 32,856 deaths in 2021, compared to the 24,576 deaths posted in 2020.

Cocaine, also massively popular as an abused substance in the US, had 24,538 overdose-related deaths in 2021, also a move up from the 19,927 deaths posted in 2020.

The overdose-related deaths in 2021 are noted by the CDC as being an all-time high, and reports indicate that this surge in overdose deaths is the consequence of the uptick in substance abuse. This increase in substance abuse cases, in turn, is largely attributed to the highly stressful atmosphere of the pandemic, forcing people to stay at home, which is made worse by the uncertainty and paranoia brought on by the isolation.

What Happens When You Overdose?

As different substances can have different effects on the body, the effects of an overdose could be quite varied. An overdose involving the most popular substances that figure in addiction, however, is almost always certain to lead to death. What happens when you overdose is that the substances in the body reach a level where it becomes so toxic that it affects the normal functions of the body in a way that the body could not compensate for.

In many cases, the overdose could cause loss of consciousness, and the vital functions of the body start to slow down and eventually cease all activity. At this point, the person becomes unresponsive to attempts at revival and could either slip into a coma or have all vital functions simply stop.

In instances where the overdoes do not lead to death, there is a high likelihood of physiological damage, ranging from major damage to damage that is irreparable and would eventually lead to death. This kind of damage would usually require organ replacement, as the overdose could have led to major organ damage.

In cases where organ replacement is not required, people who had an overdose could still suffer from long-term effects that would significantly impact their lives. Some manifest the effects of a stroke, leaving them with partial paralysis on portions of their body, while others have neurological damage, sometimes so severe that the person appears to be learning impaired.

There are instances where the paralysis and neurological damage could be slowly treated with therapy, although in some of these cases, 100% recovery is not possible, as the damage may have been too extensive and has become permanent. Some cases of paralysis are so severe that the person is left in a completely vegetative state, unable to move any part of their body. Some have demonstrated that they are still able to think and hear people through the motion of their eyes and communicate through blinking, while others are left in a catatonic state with their eyes wide open but stare blankly in no particular direction.

This kind of neurological damage is typically caused by oxygen deprivation of the brain, otherwise known as hypoxia. This usually occurs when the person suffers an overdose that leads to pulmonary distress, causing them to stop breathing. Unless the person is made to breathe soon, the body is starved of oxygen. The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxygen deprivation, and brain cells start to die in less than five minutes when deprived of oxygen.

Even if the person is made to breathe again, either on their own or through a respirator, if too many of their brain cells have died due to oxygen deprivation, they are sure to suffer some form of damage. This damage could be temporary, where the person recovers after a certain period of time, or even progressive, where brain functions slowly degrade. This usually manifests in gradual memory impairment, cognitive impairment, seizures, and partial or complete paralysis.

Many people survived an overdose and were left with neurological damage that affected the part of the brain associated with sensory input. This type of neurological damage could either be temporary or permanent, most commonly leaving people with severely limited or even complete loss of the ability to see, hear, or taste anything.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of an Overdose?

As different substances affect the body differently, the signs and symptoms of a potential or actual overdose could vary. In most cases of an overdose, however, the signs and symptoms are generally significant and tend to affect normal bodily functions more drastically compared to simply being high or inebriated.

Here are some of the more common signs and symptoms that a person is already suffering from an overdose:

Alcohol overdose:

  • Significant mental confusion
  • Stupor
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Unconscious and unresponsive
  • Seizures
  • Continuous vomiting
  • Vomiting while unconscious
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Drastically slowed heart rate
  • Very low body temperature
  • Pale or blue-tinged, clammy skin

Opioid overdose:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Constricted or pinpoint pupils
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Irregular breathing
  • Respiratory arrest (completely stopped breathing)
  • Choking, gurgling, or snoring sounds
  • Blue or purple lips or fingertips
  • No reaction to stimuli (loud noises, shaking, or painful stimuli)

Benzodiazepine overdose:

  • Profoundly impaired mental functions
  • Marked confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed, labored breathing
  • Respiratory arrest or stoppage of breathing
  • Coma

Stimulant overdose:

  • Dangerously elevated body temperature
  • Hyperventilation
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Very high blood pressure
  • Critical cardiovascular events (stroke, heart attack, impaired circulatory function)
  • Panic
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Aggressive behavior.
  • Seizures

What Should Be Done if Someone is Overdosing?

In most cases, the only thing that could be done is to seek immediate medical help. Call 911 immediately and report the incident. Give the specific location of the person suspected of having an overdose. If possible, take note if there are any pills, containers, packages, or whatever else is near the person that could indicate what they overdosed on, so that the emergency responders would have a better idea of what emergency procedure they need to do to save the person’s life.

The next best thing is to see if the person is breathing or if they appears to be unable to breathe. It is often advised to help the person onto his or her side to prevent choking and help clear the air passage.

It is worth noting that most states have the Good Samaritan laws enacted, which may offer protection to those who report an overdose in good faith or to help save a life. This is to ensure that someone would at least call 911 for emergency medical assistance regardless of the situation, as many are afraid of being implicated in any criminal activity that might be tied in with the overdose.

If possible, stay with the person until the first responders arrive. If possible, stay with the person until the first responders arrive. If the person appears to not be breathing on their own, administer CPR or chest compressions until medical help arrives.

Once at the hospital, the medical staff will try to remove whatever toxic substance it is that caused the overdose to prevent further absorption of it. Certain medications could also be used to help the body speed up the removal of the toxic substance. Once the person has been evaluated as being stable and is no longer in danger of dying or succumbing to the overdose, they will be monitored for other possible complications or effects of the overdose.

Recovery is not just a possibility at Sana Lake, it is a Certainty

Recovery from any kind of substance use disorder (SUD) means a return to life. It is, however, a long journey. As with all journeys, it begins with a single step in the right direction. We are here to help point people in the right direction and get their journey to recovery started. Each step brings recovery closer, and every experience in the journey makes a person better, stronger, and wiser.

Start your journey to recovery with us now. We will be with you every step of the way.