Opioid Overdose: Causes, Signs, and Treatment

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Opioid Overdose

Opioids are derived from the “opium poppy” plant and have many usages, with one of the most common being for pain relief. For decades, opioids were regularly used as an analgesic. However, in the early 1990s, following the popular debut of Oxycontin, there was an increase in the prescription of opiates.

This increase led to the first wave of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths. The next wave hit in 2010, this time with an increase in deaths related to heroin usage, and then another wave occurred in 2013, this time with an increase in synthetic opioid-related deaths. Synthetic opioids are laboratory-made drugs that act on the same receptors that naturally occurring opiates do, such as fentanyl.

The CDC has reported that in 2019, there were over 36,000 opiate-related deaths in the U.S. alone involving the use of synthetic opioids. 

The opioid overdose epidemic is real, and those struggling with opioid addiction must get help to avoid an accidental opioid overdose.

How Do Opioids React With The Body?

The brain and spinal cord contain receptors that mediate the impact of pain-relieving medication, such as natural and synthetic opioids. When opioids are used, they bind to the receptors of neurons and catalyze a chemical reaction, temporarily causing a feeling of pain and discomfort and leading to signs of opioid intoxication. Excess dopamine is released in the body during this interaction, which produces the acute opioid intoxication high users seek.

Since opioids provide a high, opioids that were used as a medication for pain relief are now being used recreationally to get high. As a result, patients are taking higher doses than prescribed, selling their prescriptions, or stealing friends’ and families’ prescriptions.

Why Can an Opioid Overdose Cause Death?

Opioid overdose can cause death primarily due to respiratory depression. Opioids, such as heroin or prescription painkillers, bind to receptors in the brain that regulate breathing. An overdose can overwhelm these receptors, causing the respiratory system to slow down or even cease, leading to a lack of oxygen in the body. This oxygen deprivation can result in organ failure and, ultimately, death if prompt medical intervention is not administered.

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What Types Of Opioids Are There?

Some examples of common natural opioids include Morphine, Thebaine, and Codeine.

Some examples of common synthetic opioids include Heroin (made from Morphine), OxyCodone (OxyContin, Percocet), Oxymorphone (Opana), Vicodin, Methadone, and Fentanyl. Read our online resource to discover if you can overdose from touching fentanyl.

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How Does Someone Use Opioids?

Opioids often come in the form of pills or capsules. Many people will take the pills manually via swallowing. However, some people break down the pills, dissolve them in water, and inject it into their veins. Another option is to snort the powder.

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Causes of Opioid Overdose

There are many reasons for an opioid overdose to occur.

Here are some common risk factors for opioid overdoses:

  • Mixing opioid use with other medications, alcohol, or illegal substances
  • Taking a dose higher than prescribed or taking the drug too often
  • Individual’s personal history with opioid use (if one has a history of opioid abuse)
  • Individual’s health history and age
  • Individuals taking opioid medication that was not prescribed for them (e.g., children)
  • Resuming opioid usage after taking a long break from usage
  • Taking medication for an extended period, building tolerance, and needing to take higher doses
  • Withdrawal symptoms of opioid use — requiring more of the drug to fight the feelings of withdrawal

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Opioid Overdose Symptoms

The World Health Organization lists identifying signs of an opioid overdose as the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unconsciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils (opioid overdose pupils)
  • Limp body
  • Pale face
  • Blue nails
  • Clammy skin
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Vomiting

If you see any of these symptoms, be sure to call 911 immediately.

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Opioid Overdose Treatment

An immediate course of action in an opioid overdose, if possible, is to administer Naloxone to the overdosing individual. Naloxone is considered a rescue drug that should be used in the case of an opioid overdose.

The Opioid Overdose Kit comes in the form of a nasal spray or an injection that can be administered intramuscularly. Naloxone effects last for roughly 30–90 minutes. Depending on the strength of the opioids, you may need to administer additional doses of Naloxone.

Learn more about Narcan

Anyone can use and administer the medication to an individual suspected to be overdosing on opioids. The drug works because it binds to the same opioid receptors as opioids. So essentially, opioids are removed, and naloxone replaces them.

Once Naloxone is administered, make sure someone remains with the affected individual until help arrives. In case the individual stops breathing, perform CPR if trained properly.

Lastly, it is important that with the Drug Detox Treatment that the individual receives post-overdose care, they also receive Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), one of the effective opioid overdose treatments. MAT is a fusion approach of medication and behavioral counseling, which accounts for the holistic approach to the care of the disorder.

The impact of MAT in terms of decreasing opioid use and deaths has been outstanding. Through this form of treatment, patients who were given the medication had a higher likelihood of staying in therapy than those who did not. This type of treatment helps users sustain treatment.

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Opioid Overdose Statistics

This opioid epidemic is not an issue of the past. It is still heavily impacting the United States today. In 2017, it was estimated that there were greater than 1000 ER visits each day that involved opioid misuse, and with that, there were 91 deaths from opioid overdose.

It was recorded in 2020 that roughly 3 million U.S. citizens aged 12 and above had opioid use disorder. This included approximately 2 million people who have a prescription opioid disorder. Painkiller overdose is alive and real.

The CDC released a statement in late 2021 stating that opioid overdose statistics increased from roughly 56,000 deaths to almost 76,000, a 20,000 increase. Additionally, in the United States, drug overdose is considered the leading reason for accidental death, and opioids are the most common drug overdose.

Chart comparing number of drug overdose and opioid overdose deaths in the US - Avenues Recovery

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Opioid Addiction Resources

If you would like to learn how to recognize opioid overdose symptoms, how to use Naloxone in an overdose emergency, and where to attain it, GetNaloxoneNow provides an Opioid Overdose Prevention Program and information on locating a nearby Naloxone provider.

If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction, do know there is help available, and people can avoid painkiller overdose with the right intervention and care. There is a medication called Suboxone which is a combination drug containing buprenorphine and Naloxone. The two activities in the drug work in tandem to counteract the addictive effects of opioids.

Buprenorphine is a narcotic opioid medication and Naloxone, as we now know, binds to opioid receptors to block the effect of opioids. This medication is meant to be used with other therapeutic techniques to allow an individual to wean off of opiates slowly. Additional medications for the treatment of OUD, or opioid use disorder, are methadone and Vivitrol.

When it comes to finding additional help and resources, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is an invaluable organization to reach out to. They have a 24/7 hotline available to assist those currently living with addiction and their loved ones at 1–800–662–4357. They also provide an opioid overdose prevention toolkit that is a useful resource for families and advocates for those with substance use problems.

To learn about the dangers of Imodium abuse in particular, read our useful resource page on this topic.

Take the first step today to start finding your way home from opioid addiction by contacting Avenues Recovery. You’ll join the roster of thousands of patients who’ve found healing and hope through our professional staff and facilities.

Related Reading

Painkiller and Opioid Addiction
Addictive Prescription Opioids
Teens and Painkillers
Oxycontin Addiction
Vicodin Addiction
Benzos and Opiates
How Long Do Opiates Stay in Your System
Drug Schedules
Opioid Overdose
How Long Does Vicodin Stay In Your System?
Consequences of Opioid Abuse
Dangers of Imodium
Opioid Treatment Programs
Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics
Doctor Shopping
Dangerous Prescription Drugs
Non-opioid Pain Control

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