Prescription Drug Overdose

Over the past several decades, prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed. As a result of this increase in use, prescription drug overdoses have also increased dramatically. Knowing how to react in case of an overdose can save your life or the life of a loved one, so here’s everything you need to know about prescription drug overdoses.

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Dr. Langdon M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly Langdon M.D.


What Is A Prescription Drug Overdose?

A prescription drug overdose is the act of taking too much of a given prescription drug. This can be done on accident or on purpose, depending on the intentions of the user at the time of the overdose.

When you are prescribed a certain drug, the doctor will specify the exact amount to take. This is most usually in milligrams, although some more potent prescription drugs can be measured in micrograms. Anytime you take a large dose that causes harm, makes you lose consciousness, or even kills you, then you’ve just suffered from an overdose.

Prescription drug overdoses most commonly occur with:

  • Opioids – This can range from milder medications like Vicodin and codeine to more powerful painkillers like oxycontin or fentanyl.
  • Sedatives – These are prescription drugs used to treat anxiety, like Xanax or Valium, or to help patients sleep, like Ambien.
  • Stimulants – These amphetamine-based prescription drugs are used to treat ADHD, such as Ritalin or Adderall.

All of these prescription drugs can be dangerous since they can easily cause an overdose if misused or abused. As a result, they are controlled in the United States and are either Schedule II, III, or IV. Schedule II are the most addictive while Schedule IV are the least addictive.

They are kept under strict control by health care professionals, including the doctors who prescribe them and the pharmacists who fill the prescriptions. They can still fall into the wrong hands, a process known as prescription drug diversion. This is when prescription drugs are diverted from legitimate patients and then sold illegally. As a result of this diversion, prescription drug overdoses are happening on a wide scale throughout the country.

What Causes Someone To Overdose On Prescription Drugs?

There are several reasons why someone would overdose on prescription drugs. However, it’s important to point out that prescription drug overdoses can be either intentional or accidental.

In the case of intentional overdoses, most health experts would consider that to be a suicide attempt or – at the very least – a “cry for help”. Unfortunately, many people lose their lives every year due to intentional prescription drug overdoses. These intentional overdoses are usually treated differently than accidental ones, including a greater emphasis on mental health treatment, suicide prevention, and potentially prescription drug addiction.

On the other hand, the leading causes for accidental prescription drug overdoses include:

  • Mixing prescription drugs and alcohol together – This is also known as polydrug abuse. This is incredibly dangerous, as some prescription drugs will strengthen the effects of other prescription drugs or alcohol. For instance, mixing alcohol with painkillers and/or sedatives significantly increases the risk of prescription drug overdose. If a patient usually takes 20 milligrams of a given painkiller, that amount can hit twice as hard if they’ve been drinking.
  • Poor medication management – This is especially common in the elderly. Some patients have to take a lot of medications every day and it becomes easy to lose track. Most prescription drugs look similar, especially if they’re in generic (not name-brand) form, so this is an easy mistake to make.
  • Recreational use that’s gotten out of control – This is the most common reason for accidental prescription drug overdoses. Simply put, a person begins abusing the prescription drugs and then loses control. This is especially common with addicts or people who have substance abuse issues.
  • Adulterating the prescription drugs – This is common with recreational use. Many prescription drugs have been specially formulated to release the medication slowly – this is known as delayed release. People who are looking to get high will adulterate the drug, usually by crushing the pills or dissolving them in liquid, to get a massive dose of the prescription drug all at once. This can easily result in a prescription drug overdose as the dosage is simply too high.

In many cases, better education about the dangers of prescription drugs might decrease the risk of overdoses. However, because so many people still abuse prescription drugs, they’ll likely have to undergo addiction treatment to decrease their risk of overdose.

How Much Prescription Drugs Does It Take To Overdose?

This varies from person to person, making this question a little tricky. Research scientists can identify the lethal dosage on lab animals, a value known as lethal dose 50%. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate to real life for human patients.

The factors that influence how much prescription drugs it takes to overdose include:

  • The user’s age, with the very young or very old usually requiring far less to overdose.
  • Their gender and size, with males usually being able to tolerate higher doses.
  • Their overall health and medical condition when they overdosed.
  • Any pre-existing heart disease or problems with their lungs, kidneys, and/or liver.
  • Their drug tolerance if they regularly abuse prescription drugs.
  • How the person took the prescription drug: swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected.
  • If the person removed the delayed release coating, especially on painkillers.
  • If the user was under the influence of alcohol or other prescription drugs at the time.

It’s impossible to determine the exact amount that’ll cause a prescription drug overdose. It’s usually a range of dosages, with doctors being extra careful to only prescribe the drugs far below that range. However, if a person does not follow their orders and is taking higher doses, then it’s easy to quickly overwhelm your body and end up with a prescription drug overdose.

Prescription Drug Overdose Statistics

  • According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), about 40 people die every day in the United States due to prescription drug overdoses.
  • Most overdose deaths are caused by opioids (69.5% of all fatal overdoses in 2018). Of these, two out of three (about 67%) involved prescription painkillers.
  • In 2010, prescription painkillers killed over 16,500 people. That was more than twice as many as heroin and cocaine combined.
  • From 1999 to 2018, fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers have nearly tripled (from under 2 deaths per 100,000 people to nearly 6 deaths per 100,000 people).
  • There are currently 49 states with prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). These are statewide databases to track drug prescriptions. When a PDMP is used in an emergency room, 61% of patients received no or fewer opioid painkillers than originally planned.
  • In 2012, over 12 million people reported using prescription painkillers without a proper prescription.
  • From 2005 to 2011, almost 1 million emergency room visits involved sedatives, either alone or in combination with painkillers and alcohol.

What Happens To Your Body When You Overdose On Prescription Drugs?

This depends on the type and amount of prescription drugs that you’ve taken. Additionally, if you’re under the influence of alcohol as well, then this might increase the damage and/or the risk of a prescription drug overdose.

When you suffer from a prescription drug overdose, the following can happen to your body:

  • It becomes difficult to breathe and your lips turn blue. This is especially the case with prescription painkillers.
  • Your body temperature becomes abnormal. It can either drop too low (painkillers) or get too high (stimulants). Additionally, your skin color can change, turning blue if your temperature is too low or bright red if your temperature is too high.
  • In most cases, you lose consciousness and pass out. If you don’t pass out, then you’ll likely be extremely confused and/or agitated.
  • You might start vomiting uncontrollably as your body tries to purge the prescription drugs.
  • Your pulse becomes too slow, too fast, or irregular. This can result in heart damage, especially in cases of prescription stimulant overdose.
  • If you take prescription painkillers with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Vicodin or Percocet, then it’s likely that you’ll suffer liver damage. This can be temporary or permanent.
  • You can go into convulsions, tremors, or even seizures. This is extremely dangerous.

Prescription drug overdoses are dangerous. Essentially, they can cause your body to go into a total meltdown. This can result in permanent damage to your organs or even death.

What Should You Do If You Think Someone May Have Overdosed On Prescription Drugs?

If you think someone has overdosed, time is of the essence! You have to move quickly as every second may count. If you wait too long or hesitate, then it’s possible that they may die.

In these cases, make sure you do the following:

  • Call 911 immediately. If you know what kind of drugs they’ve taken, make sure you tell the first responders. This may help save the victim’s life.
  • Try to keep the person awake. You can do this by talking to them and getting them to sit up while you wait for paramedics.
  • If they are passed out and not breathing properly, administer CPR. If you’re not certified, then the 911 dispatcher can guide you through the process over the phone.
  • Rub your knuckles on their breast bone.
  • If you need to leave the person for any reason, put them in the recovery position. This means you should lay them on their side.
  • If they’re overdosing on prescription painkillers and you have Narcan available, make sure you administer it. This is usually in the form of a nasal spray.

A prescription drug overdose can be incredibly scary, but you need to stay calm. Ultimately, your quick thinking can save their life.

Is There Prescription Drug Overdose Treatment?

This depends on the type of prescription drugs that were used. Additionally, if the victim was drinking, that makes the overdose treatment that much more complicated. If you know exactly what the person took, make sure you tell medical professionals or first responders. This will influence the overdose treatment.

The types of treatment for prescription drug overdoses are:

  • For prescription painkillers, a drug called Narcan. This basically pulls a person directly out of an overdose by “knocking out” the drug from the person’s brain receptors. It’s like hitting a switch – in most cases the victim will come rushing back to consciousness. Once they regain consciousness, they should still be under medical supervision. This is in case they suffered permanent damage from the overdose.
  • For sedatives, there is a drug similar to Narcan that can also reverse the overdose. Known as flumazenil, it must be administered in a hospital as it can cause seizures.
  • With stimulant overdoses, the victim must be hospitalized. They’re usually given a series of medications to prevent seizures and/or heart damage. Additionally, medical staff must keep their body temperature down to prevent brain and/or organ damage.
  • Additionally, all prescription drug overdoses include stomach pumping, monitoring the patient’s vitals, and administration of IV fluids.

How Can You Prevent Prescription Drug Overdose?

This is crucial – preventing prescription drug overdoses is extremely important. You can help someone avoid permanent injury or even save their life. What’s the best way to do this?

First of all, it’s important to always communicate. If you’re suffering from prescription drug abuse, then you should reach out to someone. They can help you find proper treatment or refer you to a rehab facility.

If you suspect someone else is suffering from prescription drug abuse, then ask them how you can help. Find out how they’re doing and provide them with a safe, compassionate, and non-judgmental environment. This will increase the chances that they’ll be honest with you and ask for help.

In some cases, it may be necessary to stage an intervention. This is usually best done with the help of treatment professionals. In fact, all stages of treatment and recovery are best handled by trained and experienced professionals.

Once the patient is ready, then they can come to a rehab facility to get the help they need. Make sure you choose one that uses evidence-based treatments (EBTs). These are proven to work and are supported by the evidence.

At Bedrock Recovery Center (BRC), we offer a state-of-the-art facility. Located in Canton, Massachusetts, we provide a serene environment where patients can focus on their recovery and break free of their prescription drug addiction. You or your loved one can start your new, sober life today!

  1. Polydrug use and overdose: overthrowing old myths
  2. Concentrations of Opiates and Psychotropic Agents in Polydrug Overdoses: A Surprising Correlation Between Morphine and Antidepressants
  3. What Do You Do if Someone Is Overdosing?
  4. Drug Overdose
  5. Prescription Drug Overdose
  6. Prescription Drug Overdose
  7. Overdose Death Rates

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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