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What Happens When You Overdose on Pills?

Overdosing on pills can result in respiratory failure, brain damage, and even premature death.

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Pill Overdose

Any type of drug can be misused, and one of the highest consequences of drug abuse or misuse is experiencing an overdose.

An overdose occurs when an individual takes a larger quantity of a given substance than the body can handle. Overdoses can occur intentionally or unintentionally. They can have severe consequences to the body and brain, in some cases resulting in brain damage, coma, or even death.

Pills are especially prone to overdose as individuals develop a tolerance to prescription and illicit drugs. 

Pills are easy to take, and their effects can sometimes take a little time to set in, which is deceptive to those who use them to get an immediate result. If the result the individual seeks does not occur in a certain timeframe, they will often take a higher quantity to feel the effects, which sets the table for an overdose.

Knowing about prescription medication and doing research about pills and illicit drugs can increase your knowledge, help you avoid overdosing yourself, and even give you the tools to help someone else in the event that they overdose.

Types of Pills

There are thousands of kinds of prescription medication that individuals use to treat various health conditions. Pills are commonly prescribed for things like insomnia, depression, ADHD, chronic pain, and other fairly common conditions and ailments that require medical intervention.

Types of pills include benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine sedatives, opioids, stimulants, and antidepressants. 


Benzos is the street name for benzodiazepines (which include diazepam and temazepam). Benzodiazepines happen to be the second most common type of pill to cause an overdose that results in death. 

Benzos are often combined with other substances, including alcohol and opioids, which contributes to this drug’s higher overdose rate.

Symptoms of a benzodiazepine overdose include the following:

  • Respiratory depression
  • Excessive sedation
  • Impaired mental state
  • Slurred or troubled speech
  • Impaired stability and reflexes
  • Relaxed or immobile body
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedatives

Some pills used for insomnia are non-benzodiazepine sedatives, which interact similarly with receptors but differ structurally. Non-benzodiazepine sedatives increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which slows down brain activity, relaxes the body, and helps the individual sleep. 

Common non-benzodiazepine pills include Sonata (zaleplon), Ambien (zolpidem), and Lunesta (eszopiclone). 

Non-benzodiazepine overdoses are less common than other pills listed, but these overdose deaths have increased over the years. Replacing benzodiazepines or opioids with non-benzodiazepine sedatives does not necessarily lower the risk of abuse or overdose.


Opioids include natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic opioids.

Medications like Percocet, Oxycontin, and Vicodin are all semi-synthetic opioids, and they are typically used to reduce pain. Some of these types of medication are also prescribed for symptoms of sickness, which include coughing and diarrhea.

Semi-synthetic opioids are highly addictive, and there is a significant risk of abuse, dependency, and overdose. 

Semi-synthetic opioids are also commonly used in tandem with other drugs, most commonly alcohol and cocaine, which drastically increases the likelihood of overdose. 

An overdose of semi-synthetic opioids can result in the following symptoms:

  • Slowed breathing
  • Stupor
  • Change in eye pupil size
  • Clammy skin
  • Coma
  • Hypoxia

Synthetic opioids are considered narcotic analgesics, which include fentanyl and all of its analogs (such as carfentanil, methadone, and tramadol). Fentanyl is considered up to 100 times stronger than all-natural opiates like morphine.

Fentanyl itself is commonly used in combination with or as a substitute for heroin. Many overdoses occur when fentanyl is present in heroin powder.

Symptoms of synthetic opioid abuse and overdose include the following:

  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Sedation
  • Slowed breathing
  • Reduced consciousness


Prescription stimulants are generally prescribed to treat conditions such as narcolepsy as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Common stimulant pills include Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse. 

Stimulants often have amphetamines in them. Amphetamine toxicity should be a primary concern when taking these kinds of medications.

Symptoms of stimulant overdose include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Shakiness
  • Restlessness
  • Chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance


Antidepressants are quite commonly used to treat conditions like depression, anxiety, mood disorders, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Commonly used antidepressants include Prozac, Zoloft, Cymbalta, and Wellbutrin. It’s important to be careful when taking antidepressants and to only take the amount you have been prescribed.

Signs of antidepressant overdose can often be fairly innocuous and may include the following:

  • Increased agitation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cotton mouth or dry mouth
  • Hallucinations
  • Cardiac arrest

Antidepressants should be taken judicially, as they can result in a variety of health problems. Long-term use of antidepressants has been linked to cardiovascular issues like heart attacks, strokes, and even premature death. Talk to your doctor about potential side effects, and always follow their prescribed instructions.

Swallowing vs. Snorting Pills

When an individual swallows a pill, effects will generally take 30 to 45 minutes to set in. This represents the slowest onset of the effects of the drug in question.

Many prescription drug abusers end up experimenting with pills, sometimes even crushing the pills and converting the substance into a powder, which is ingested via inhaling through the nostrils (also called snorting). This method is used to feel the drug’s effects faster.

Snorting pills is a common method used by those with substance use disorders. Pills are snorted with a straw or straw-like device that causes an immediate sensation.

However, snorting pills causes immense harm. Snorting pills can cause damage to the respiratory system. 

It can also cause irreparable damage to mucous membranes, which makes breathing considerably more difficult and can even increase the risk of getting a bloodborne infection (hepatitis C and HIV included). This occurs because small and sometimes unnoticeable amounts of blood can contaminate paraphernalia and infect those who share these tools.

Signs You Might Have a Problem With Pills

Signs that a person might have a drug dependency problem with pills vary, depending on the substance used, the individual’s history with the drug in question, use of additional drugs, and other factors.

One primary symptom of a pill problem is engaging in drug-seeking behavior. If an individual procures drugs from sources other than a medical professional, it is usually a tell-tale sign that there is a problem.

Changes in sleeping and eating habits are also common among individuals who are abusing pills. This can include sleeping excessively or not getting enough sleep. It can also include eating less or eating more. 

Another major sign of a pill problem is “doctor shopping,” which entails seeing more than one doctor to obtain multiple prescriptions. Individuals may fake symptoms in an effort to get more pills prescribed.

Additional signs that you or someone you know might have a problem with pills include the following:

  • Taking doses that are higher than recommended 
  • Stealing pills
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Crushing pills to snort them
  • Increased irritability and hostility
  • Increased alcohol use
  • Secretive behavior
  • Social withdrawal

Although it might be difficult to admit that you or someone you know has a problem with pills, you can recover from this condition. There are avenues that offer support for these types of problems and addictions.

Treatment Options for Pill Addiction

Treatment options for pill addiction will vary depending on the type of medication abused. Generally, if exploring treatment, an individual will undergo a psychological and medical evaluation from a trained medical professional.

During the evaluation, the body’s level of dependence on the drugs will be assessed as well as any medical conditions attributed to the use of prescription pills. If the person has any co-occurring mental health disorders, this will be considered, as will their history of addiction.

Treatment for Stimulant Addiction

Treatment for stimulant use disorder focuses on behavioral therapy. Contingency management is often used, which utilizes stimulus control and incorporates consequences. Ideally, positive reinforcement is given for appropriate behavior.

Naltrexone may be an option for treating a stimulant pill addiction. Its use has not been well studied, but it has shown some potential in treating stimulant use disorders. 

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Treatment for opioid addiction includes medication and therapy. 

The gold-standard for opioid addiction treatment is medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in which individuals take a long-term maintenance medication, such as methadone or buprenorphine, to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Therapy is crucial to identifying the causes of opioid abuse and to learn to manage relapse triggers.

Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction

Benzodiazepine addiction treatment includes medical detox and therapy.

Medications used for the treatment of addiction include flumazenil, which is a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist. Flumazenil helps to reverse the effects of benzos and decrease withdrawal symptoms. Flumazenil can also be utilized in the event of an overdose.


Aftercare is crucial to sustaining recovery. Aftercare plans often include ongoing outpatient therapy, participation in support groups, and activities that support a healthy lifestyle. 

Addiction is a chronic condition, so some level of continuous treatment and vigilance is required. Ongoing aftercare will decrease the likelihood of relapse, helping to support long-term recovery. 

If you experience an overdose on pills or any kind of pill addiction, it’s important that you get help right away. Prompt treatment can help to mitigate long-term and severe damage to your health and your life.

Updated April 19, 2023
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  3. Spotlight on… Fentanils and Other New Opioids. (October 2021). European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
  4. Amphetamine Toxicity. (January 2022). StatPearls.
  5. Tricyclic Antidepressant Toxicity. (July 2022). StatPearls.
  6. Pharmacotherapy Treatment of Stimulant Use Disorder. (November 2021). Mental Health Clinician.
  7. Benzodiazepine Dependence and Its Treatment With Low Dose Flumazenil. (January 2014). British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
  8. Bupropion and Naltrexone in Methamphetamine Use Disorder. (January 2021). The New England Journal of Medicine.
  9. Management of Benzodiazepine Misuse and Dependence. (October 2016). Australian Prescriber.
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