Opioid Overdose | Symptoms, Risks Factors & Treatment

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Opioid overdose is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can occur when a person takes too much of an opioid drug or a combination of opioids and other substances. In recent years, the opioid epidemic has led to an increase in opioid overdoses, highlighting the importance of understanding the symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options for this condition.

Knowing more about opioids and the risks of opioid overdose is crucial because it can help you recognize when someone is in danger and get them the help they need. In addition to knowing what opioids are and how they affect the body, knowing the symptoms and signs can also help to save someone’s life. 

What Causes An Opioid Overdose?

An opioid overdose occurs when a person takes too much of an opioid drug or a combination of opioids and other substances. This can lead to respiratory depression, which is a slowing or stopping of breathing that can be fatal if not treated promptly. Opioids also have the potential to cause physical dependence which makes those taking these pain relievers more susceptible to overdose. This is because when one develops a physical dependence on a substance, the individual will need to take more of the substance in order to get the desired effect. 

The frequency of opioid overdose is rapidly increasing according to data found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information and drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with opioids being the most common drug. 

Recognizing the signs of opioid overdose is essential to saving lives. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of the following symptoms, call 911 or contact a medical professional immediately.

Symptoms can include:

  • Slow or shallow breathing
  • Bluish lips or nails
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Loss of consciousness or unresponsiveness; unable to speak or be awakened
  • Body going limp
  • Vomiting or gurgling noises
  • Their breathing or heartbeat slows or stops

Anyone who uses opioids for pain management, whether prescribed or illicit, can be at risk of an opioid overdose. This is because an overdose can occur by a deliberate misuse of a prescription opioid, medication error, a patient misinterpreting the instructions for the prescription, or even a prescriber miscalculating the appropriate dose.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are commonly used to relieve pain. They work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system, reducing pain signals and inducing feelings of euphoria. Opioids can be synthetic opioids such as prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl, or illicit drugs, such as heroin.

Pain relief is a common reason why patients seek medical care. Opiates have been used for close to 70 years as a way to relieve pain, and for the most part, these drugs were assumed to be safe. However, over the past two decades, reports have raised concerns about their safety. Cases of overdose and opiate toxicity are continually reported in all major cities in the United States. The number of prescriptions for opiates has also dramatically increased during this time, leading to an epidemic of overdose outside of the healthcare setting. It’s important for healthcare workers to be aware of opiate toxicity in patients who are lethargic or unresponsive for no apparent reason.

According to data released by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of opiate diversion, prescriptions for opiates, and opiate-related deaths have exponentially increased in the US from 2001 through 2010. 

Risk Factors for Opioid Overdose

While anyone who uses opioids is at risk of overdose, some individuals are more likely to overdose than others. Understanding the risk factors for opioid overdose can help individuals, their loved ones, and healthcare providers take steps to prevent it from occurring. Some of the risk factors for opioid overdose include factors related to the individual, such as their age, gender, and medical history, as well as factors related to their environment, such as their living situation and access to healthcare. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the risk factors for opioid overdose and discuss how you can reduce your risk.

Some of the risk factors for opioid overdose include:

  • Using opioids in combination with other substances, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines
  • Using opioids at high doses or for prolonged periods of time
  • Family history or personal history of substance use disorder or overdose
  • Using opioids without a prescription or outside of medical supervision

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Prevention of Opioid Overdose

Opioid overdose is a serious and growing public health problem. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were over 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the US from April 2020 to 2021, an increase of 28.5% from the prior year.

Opioid overdoses can occur for various reasons, including:

  • Misuse of illicit opioids such as heroin or morphine
  • Accidental overdose of methadone, which can happen when someone takes an extra dose, deliberately misuses a prescription opioid or mixes opioids with other medications, alcohol, or over-the-counter medications
  • Fatal overdose when mixing opioids with anxiety treatment medications, including derivatives of Benzodiazepine, such as Xanax or Valium
  • Misuse of opioid-based pain medication, using it not as prescribed by the physician, or taking medication prescribed for someone else.

Children are especially vulnerable to accidental overdoses if they take medication not intended for them. It is crucial to seek help immediately in the case of an opioid overdose, as prompt medical attention can be life-saving.

Preventing opioid overdose involves a combination of solutions, including:

  • Avoiding the misuse of prescription opioids
  • Using opioids only as prescribed and under the supervision of a healthcare provider
  • Using naloxone as a harm-reduction tool
  • Seeking treatment for opioid use disorder

An important note from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is to be aware that naloxone is not addictive.

In order to reduce the risk of death from opioid overdose, the FDA recommends that anyone prescribed opioids, taking opioids or anyone who is around someone taking opioids should carry naloxone.

Treating Opioid Overdose

When it comes to treating opioid overdose, immediate medical intervention is critical. The primary goal is to reverse the overdose and restore normal breathing. Naloxone, a medication that rapidly counteracts the effects of opioids, is commonly used for emergency opioid overdose treatment. It is available in different forms, including nasal spray and injection, and can be administered by healthcare professionals, first responders, or even bystanders.

If you suspect that someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, call 911 immediately. In the meantime, you can take the following steps:

  • Administer naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose
  • Try to keep the person awake and breathing
  • Lay the person on their side to prevent choking
  • Monitor their breathing and vital signs until medical help arrives

Seeking professional help from medical experts, such as emergency medical services or healthcare providers, is crucial for the timely administration of naloxone and ensuring appropriate care. If you or someone you know is experiencing an opioid overdose, do not hesitate to call emergency services right away. Remember, prompt action can save live

Find Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder Today

Opioid overdose is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition, but with prompt treatment and prevention strategies, it can be prevented.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an opioid use disorder, seek treatment from a trusted healthcare provider or substance abuse treatment center like Riverside Recovery of Tampa. Recovery is possible, and you don’t have to go through it alone.

Contact our admissions team today to learn more about our continuum of care.