Written by: Editorial Staff
Updated: May 04, 2022
A drug overdose occurs when an individual takes too much of a drug, and the body is unable to metabolize the substance, so the increase in the drug begins to shut down organ systems. Often, slowed or stopped breathing, changes in blood pressure or blood flow, or ruptured vessels lead to a lack of oxygen in the brain. This can change an individual’s behavior, cause the person to pass out, lapse into a coma, or even die.
Can a Person Overdose on Prescription Medications?
Although many individuals take medications only as prescribed by their doctors, it is possible to become addicted to, abuse, andoverdose on prescription medications. Because many medications are widely prescribed to treat pain or psychiatric disorders, Americans have greater access to a wider variety of strong drugs. Sometimes,people have some medication left over after they do not need the drug anymore, and they may take the medication recreationally.In some instances, people who become addicted to a substance also develop a tolerance for it and need stronger prescriptions to feel “normal.”
About 20 percent of the adult population of the United States has self-reported that they have taken prescription medications recreationally, abused the medications, or taken them for a purpose other than as prescribed.Especially when combined with other drugs, particularly alcohol, these prescription drugs can be very dangerous.If individuals take these medications outside of a doctor’s recommendations, or without medical supervision, they are more likely to suffer an overdose.
Accidental prescription drug overdoses do happen. Patients with chronic pain, such as those dealing with cancer or arthritis, are typically prescribed strong, long-acting painkillers like OxyContin. If they inadvertently take too many pills in one day, they can overdose without being addicted to their prescription. Individuals suffering from insomnia may drink alcohol or take other medications that interact with their sleep aid medication, causing them to overdose. Children’s bodies cannot process medications as rapidly as adults, and they cannot metabolize doses as large as adults, so if they accidentally ingest an adult’s prescription, they can overdose.Elderly people with prescription medications, particularly those who have dementia, may accidentally take too much of their prescriptions and suffer an overdose.
Basic Symptoms of a Prescription Drug Overdose
Although prescription overdoses have different symptoms based on what type of drug it is, basic psychological and physiological changes can indicate that an individual is beginning to suffer a prescription drug overdose.These changes include:
- Mental changes, like confusion, fogginess, rambling or rapid speech, or hyper-attention
- Emotional changes, like depression, aggression, or euphoria
- Hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, or suicidal ideation
- Body temperature changes, either hypothermia or hyperthermia
- Nausea and vomiting
- Extreme sleepiness
- Stupor (the individual appears conscious but is unresponsive)
- Passing out
- Diarrhea or abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Changes in breathing, such as slowed breathing or shallow, rapid breaths
Any of these symptomscan be a sign of a drug overdose. Immediately call 911 for help, and be sure to stay with the individual until help arrives.
Prescription Drugs That Are Addictive
If an individual struggles with addiction, whether due to childhood trauma, family history, genetic disposition, or another underlying cause, nearly any prescription medication can become addictive. However, there are a few medications that areabused by millions of peoplein the United States. These medications are very addictive for a wide range of people.
Opioid painkillersare prescription medications that interact with opioid neurotransmitter receptors in the brain to manage pain. Several of these medications are given on a short-term basis for post-surgical pain or other types of pain that go away with time; however, some opioid pain medications, such as OxyContin, are prescribed to individuals who suffer chronic pain from conditions like arthritis or cancer.
Because these medications are opiates, similar to illegal street drugs like heroin, they can be very addictive. Prescription painkillers contain oxycodone or hydrocodone, and they are sometimes combined with other medications, most often acetaminophen.Brand and generic names for prescription painkillers include:
Opioid pain medications are highly addictive, and their abuse has led to an “epidemic” of opioid addiction in the US, perNIDA. Prescriptions for these drugs are monitored very carefully in order to discourage addiction, and it is a felony to share prescription painkillers with others. Although these drugs are highly regulated, they are also widely prescribed to treat serious pain, and many people become addicted to them after routine surgeries, like wisdom tooth removal, or after suffering injuries like broken bones or back pain from a car accident or work injury.
Opioid drugs release slowly into the system, so as an individual develops a tolerance for these medications, it becomes very easy for that person to take more than the body can process. When this happens, overdose occurs. In the US,78 people die dailydue to opioid overdose.
Central nervous system depressantsare used to treat anxiety conditions and sleep disorders, like insomnia. Many people become addicted to the euphoric and hallucinogenic qualities of these medications when taken in large doses, when the person fails to use the medication as directed, orwhen the person mixes the medication with other drugs, particularly alcohol.
The most common addictiveCNS depressantsare:
- Xanax: Typically used in moderate or small doses to treat panic and anxiety disorders, this medication relaxes the body by depressing the nervous system. It works quickly and sedates the user easily.
- Klonopin: One of the medications in a class of benzodiazepines that is typically prescribed for people suffering psychological anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder. While clinically this medication is prescribed in small doses, people who abuse this drug often seem drunk due to the sedative effects of the medication when used in large quantities.
- Valium:This is another benzodiazepine that is much like Klonopin, which can be highly habit-forming.
- Ambien: This is a prescription medication used to treat insomnia. When used as prescribed, people typically do not take this drug for more than one month. When abused, however, this medication can create euphoria and a lack of coordination, similar to alcohol intoxication.
- Other barbiturates: These medications are not benzodiazepines. Although they offer a similar level of relaxation in small doses as prescribed by a doctor, they are actually tranquilizers.
It is very easy for people taking CNS depressants to become tolerant to these medications and require larger doses to get the same effects. When people take these medications under the supervision of a doctor or psychiatrist, they can be very useful in the treatment of serious anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and other similar conditions. If the supervising medical professional believes that a patient is abusing these medications, then alternative treatments will be used instead. However, when a person abuses these medications or becomes addicted outside of a medical professional’s supervision, the person risks suffering an overdose.
These medications are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or more rarely to treat narcolepsy or depression. However, when people who do not haveADHD take these medications, they feel a euphoric effect that is similar to that felt with cocaine. That is because stimulant medications are a class of highly regulated, but legal,amphetamines, similar to meth or ecstasy. These medications include:
Many young adults begin to abuse prescription stimulants in high school or college as “performance-enhancing drugs.” Because these medications increase attention, they are often abused as study aids to help students cram for tests or write essays at the last minute. When overused by people who do not have a condition that requires amphetamine medications, they can also create a sensation of euphoria or a “high.” It is also very easy for people to become tolerant of these medications and begin to take more just to feel “normal.” This can lead to amphetamine overdose.
People who become tolerant to or addicted tostimulantscan also take too much of the medication in desperation if they miss a dose or feel withdrawal effects like extreme fatigue, confusion, or even psychosis. This behavior can lead to overdose as well.
Treatment after Prescription Drug Overdose
Emergency medical treatment is needed in the case of prescription drug overdose. Some general treatments given in the emergency roominclude stomach pumping; administering medications to stop or reverse the overdose (when available); breathing assistance, such as intubation or a ventilator; medications to treat symptoms, such as seizures, heart attacks, or allergic reactions; IV fluids to stop dehydration; CPR or other resuscitation techniques; use of activated charcoal to absorb drugs from the body; and chemical or physical restraints in rare cases when individuals are extremely violent.
Once an individual has been treated for the overdose in emergency care, the person will be released from the hospital. However, treating an overdose does not treat the underlying disorder if the individual is addicted to prescription medications. Forthose suffering from substance abuse and addiction, comprehensive addiction treatment, often via inpatient rehabilitation, is needed.
Learn More About Addiction Treatment
- Medical Detox Treatment
- Inpatient Rehab
- Outpatient Rehab
- Medically Supervised Drug Rehab Treatment in Las Vegas, NV
How do you know if you overdose on meds? ›
Common signs of drug overdoses include vomiting, confusion, and being unresponsive. Symptoms can include slowed breathing, erratic pulse, and chest pains. If you suspect that you or a loved one is having an overdose, get professional help immediately.What does an overdose on pain meds look like? ›
Signs of an overdose include slow or shallow breathing, pale and clammy skin, snoring or gurgling while asleep and unresponsiveness to yelling or physical stimulation. If you suspect that someone may have overdosed call 911. Additional steps you may take include rescue breathing and giving narcan, if available.What are 5 signs of an overdose? ›
- Dilated pupils.
- Unsteady walking.
- Chest pain.
- Severe difficulty breathing, shallow breathing, or complete cessation of breath.
- Gurgling sounds that indicate the person's airway is blocked.
- Blue lips or fingers.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Abnormally high body temperature.
- nausea and vomiting.
- severe stomach pain and abdominal cramps.
- chest pain.
- loss of balance.
- loss of co-ordination.
- being unresponsive, but awake.
However, taking too many prescription medications can be risky. Taking more than five medications is called polypharmacy. The risk of harmful effects, drug interactions and hospitalizations increase when you take more medications.How many painkillers can you take in 24 hours? ›
Taking 1 or 2 extra tablets by accident is unlikely to be harmful, as long as you do not take more than 8 tablets in 24 hours.What are the long term effects of overdosing? ›
The Long-Term Effects of an Overdose
The mental health effects of an overdose can involve anxiety, depression, and memory problems, while physical effects can include Toxic Brain Injury, liver damage, compromised cardiovascular health, and neurological consequences.
Most Overdose Patients Can Leave ER One Hour After Receiving Naloxone.What happens if you overdose? ›
A large overdose can cause a person to stop breathing and die if not treated right away. The person may need to be admitted to the hospital to continue treatment. Depending on the drug, or drugs taken, multiple organs may be affected, This may affect the person's outcome and chances of survival.What happens when someone overdose on antidepressants? ›
People who overdose on antidepressants may experience mild to severe symptoms, depending on how much they took and whether they mixed them with any other substances. Usually, common antidepressant overdose side effects include: Nausea and/or vomiting. Dilated pupils.
How many pills is too much? ›
However, taking too many prescription medications can be risky. Taking more than five medications is called polypharmacy. The risk of harmful effects, drug interactions and hospitalizations increase when you take more medications.What happens if you take too much medicine? ›
The more medications you are taking, the higher the risk of those drugs interacting dangerously with each other. Multiple medications can cause confusion, lightheadedness and even internal bleeding — all dangerous and injurious conditions.What happens if you take too many different pills? ›
Taking multiple medications can also impact your quality of life. It isn't easy to keep track of different medications that you take on different dosing schedules. And multiple medications could make it more likely for you to fall, which can increase your risk of other health problems or even of dying prematurely.What is an accidental overdose? ›
An accidental overdose refers to an overdose that happens unintentionally. A person may not realize that they are taking a harmful amount of a substance. An accidental overdose can happen when a person: Takes more of a substance, like heroin or cocaine, than their body can handle.What drug temporarily stops the heart? ›
This allows the heart rhythm to return to normal. Adenocor is only given in hospitals. It is given to you as an injection. The effect of Adenocor only lasts for a couple of minutes.What medications Cannot be taken together? ›
Specifically, drugs that slow down breathing rate, such as opioids, alcohol, antihistamines, CNS depressants, or general anesthetics, should not be taken together because these combinations increase the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.How many pills does the average person take? ›
How many prescriptions does the average American take? Data suggests that among those who take prescription medications, the average number of medications taken is four. More than 131 million Americans take at least one prescription medication.How long do you need to stay in hospital after overdose? ›
Most Overdose Patients Can Leave ER One Hour After Receiving Naloxone.What happens if you take 4 Tylenol pills at once? ›
Many people think that it's harmless because it's an over-the-counter drug. But if you take too much of it, you could experience liver or kidney damage. Overdosing on acetaminophen can even lead to death. To avoid overdose, never take more than 4 grams of Tylenol within 24 hours.How many painkillers can be taken in a day? ›
Important. Taking 1 or 2 extra tablets by accident is unlikely to be harmful, as long as you do not take more than 8 tablets in 24 hours.
What happens when someone overdose on antidepressants? ›
People who overdose on antidepressants may experience mild to severe symptoms, depending on how much they took and whether they mixed them with any other substances. Usually, common antidepressant overdose side effects include: Nausea and/or vomiting. Dilated pupils.Can you overdose on Advil? ›
Can you overdose on Advil? When used as directed, Advil is the safest in overdose situations. Signs of overdose are known to occur at 40x the maximum daily dose (1200mg). This low toxicity profile makes Advil a safe and effective pain reliever for multiple aches and pains.What medicine combination can cause death? ›
- Alcohol + opiates (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, etc.).
- Alcohol + benzodiazepines (e.g., Ativan, Valium, Xanax, etc.).
- Cocaine + heroin.
- Alcohol + cocaine.