An overdose occurs when the body is overwhelmed by a toxic amount of a drug(s). A toxic amount is difficult to measure because each person’s individual reaction to drugs can vary significantly. It is really only when the damage is done and a person overdoses that the toxic amount is determined.
According to research supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) overdose statistics include the following:
- Approximately 27,500 people died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2007
- In 20 states in 2007, the number of unintentional drug poisoning deaths exceeded either motor vehicle crashes or suicides, two of the leading causes of injury death
- Opioid pain medications were involved in about 36 percent of all poisoning suicides in the United States in 2997
While these statistics are from 2007, the number of prescription drugs has only increased since that time.
Overdose Characteristics Based on Types of Drugs
With depressants such as heroin, the body’s central nervous system causes breathing to slow down, a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, which cumulatively reduces the body’s temperature. This can lead to respiratory arrest where the lack of oxygen to the brain causes loss of consciousness, coma, or death. With stimulants, such as cocaine, the central nervous system accelerates breathing, which increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. These variables can contribute to a seizure, stroke, heart attack, or death.
Overdose and Brain Damage
The foremost concern about a drug overdose is that the brain does not get enough oxygen. The lack of oxygen may be due to a drug-induced blockage of the airway, or the lack of oxygen due to heart fibrillation which restricts the flow of oxygen. Whatever causes the lack of oxygen, it only takes three to five minutes without oxygen to do permanent damage to the brain.
With the lack of oxygen, the part of the brain that controls memory is impacted first. The longer the brain goes without oxygen, the ability to read or speak is affected next. Continued deprivation leads to retardation and eventually can lead to death.
The factors that increase a person’s risk for overdose include the following:
- Tolerance – a person’s height, weight, the strength of the immune system, age, and duration of drug usage all impact tolerance level
- Poly-substance abuse – combining stimulants with stimulants exacerbates the impacts of the drugs
- Quality – the content and purity of street drugs is an unknown, so every time you use a street drug you have no idea how your body will react
- Being alone – a person using drugs alone is at greater risk as no one can intervene
When people combine any of these individual risk factors, they only increase the risk of an overdose.