Get Help Today. (800) 516-4357

What Happens When You Overdose on Pills?

Pills are designed to move from your mouth, down your throat, and into your digestive system. Take too much at once, and you could overwhelm your body and experience an overdose. Episodes of overdosing on pills can lead to serious health effects. 

Struggling with Addiction? Get Help Now

Overdosing on pills can cause a life-threatening emergency. Overdoses can happen intentionally or accidentally, and both types of overdose require immediate medical attention. Treatment will vary according to the type of pills taken. Prompt action can save a life.

What Is a Pill Overdose?

An overdose occurs when more than the recommended amount of a substance is consumed at once.  This can happen intentionally, when a person purposely takes more of a substance than they should, or accidentally. Accidental overdoses can happen when someone unknowingly consumes a drug, such as a child who picked up a pill they found.[1]

A drug overdose and poisoning from a substance are essentially the same event. An overdose occurs when you ingest too much of a substance, either accidentally or intentionally. An overdose is technically a poisoning event, when too much of a substance is taken (such as with alcohol poisoning), or when a person is exposed to too much of a substance intentionally, accidentally, or via their environment.[1]

Why Do People Overdose on Pills?

People overdose on pills intentionally and unintentionally for a variety of reasons. Factors such as a history of drug addiction, self-medication, peer pressure, improper storage of drugs, and suicide attempts can cause people to overdose, both on purpose and by accident. 

Opioids are one of the most common types of drug people overdose on. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 125,000 people died of an opioid overdose in 2019. In addition, many more people experience non-fatal opioid overdoses. 

One reason so many people overdose on opioids is due to the rise of fentanyl being mixed into pills purchased on the street.[7] Fentanyl is approximately 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Illicit drug manufacturers mix fentanyl into counterfeit tablets or pills to make their effects stronger and to cut costs. The people purchasing the tablets often have no idea they are purchasing such potent pills, and do not adjust their intake accordingly.[7]

Risks & Factors Increasing the Likelihood of an Overdose

People across the country of all ages and sexes experience fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Opioid use, both prescription and recreational, is one of the leading causes of overdose. 

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of having an overdose on pills include the following:[6]

  • Taking high doses of a drug
  • Prolonged used of a drug
  • Taking extended=release or long-acting pills that contain higher dosages than immediate-release versions
  • Adults aged 65 and older, who may be more sensitive to opioids, taking these drugs
  • Having a health condition, such as respiratory problems
  • Having mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
  • A history of substance abuse

A significant factor that increases the risk of having an overdose is using multiple drugs at once. Substances can interact with one another and make their effects much stronger. Combining opioids with alcohol, for example, can suppress breathing to the point of death. Benzodiazepines, sedative/hypnotics, muscle relaxants, antipsychotics, and any other central nervous system depression drugs should never be taken with opioids.[6]

Symptoms & Effects of Overdosing on Pills

Overdosing on pills can cause many negative effects on the mind and body. The symptoms and effects of an overdose vary depending upon which type of pill or substance was taken. 

Signs and symptoms of an overdose caused by opioids include the following:[4]

  • Small, constricted pupils
  • Extreme sleepiness or loss of consciousness
  • Faint, slow, or no breathing 
  • Weak, limp body
  • Cold, blue, or clammy skin, lips, or nails

Signs and symptoms of an overdose caused by pills containing stimulants include the following:[4]

  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness and tremors
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate 
  • Excessive sweating and overheating
  • Seizure, stroke, or heart attack

Overdoses can also cause serious psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, panic, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis. Quick intervention can help prevent long-term side effects of an overdose, including organ and brain damage. 

Common Drugs Associated With an Overdose

Many drugs are associated with a risk of overdose. A recent study on fatal overdoses in the United States identified the following drugs that are most frequently associated with overdoses:[5]

Tips to Prevent an Overdose on Pills

Of the above drugs, most overdoses were caused by a combination of substances. Again, fentanyl was one of the most commonly seen drugs in accidental overdoses, as users are often unaware that fentanyl has been mixed into the products they are buying. 

Overdoses can be prevented by ensuring proper care and use of medications and drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers the following tips to prevent an overdose:[2]

  • Only take medication as prescribed by a doctor.
  • Do not take medication more often or in greater quantities than as prescribed.
  • Do not mix medication with other pills, alcohol, or drugs. 
  • Do not consume anyone else’s medication. 
  • Safely store all substance out of reach of children or anyone else who may accidently ingest it.

What to Do in Case of a Pill Overdose

If you witness someone having an overdose, seek emergency medical care right away. Either call 911 or bring the person to an emergency room. 

Remain with the individual, place them in a recovery position on their side, and monitor their breathing. If the person stops breathing or their breathing becomes very shallow before emergency medical responders have arrived, administer CPR.

If you know the person you are with has overdosed on opioids, treat the person with naloxone (Narcan) if you have it available. Within minutes, naloxone can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and restore the person’s breathing. Addiction experts recommend having naloxone on hand if you live with or are often with someone who frequently uses opioids.[2]

Treatment & Recovery From an Overdose

Treatment of an overdose best occurs in a hospital where the person’s vital signs can be monitored and supported, as needed. If the person receives treatment before experiencing significant breathing complications, they are unlikely to experience long-term negative effects of the overdose. Within a day of the overdose, they will probably feel back to normal.[1] Prompt treatment is key.

Although symptoms of an overdose may resolve quickly, an overdose can be a sign of a substance use disorder that requires further treatment. Follow-up care for individuals who survived an overdose is also essential for addressing their mental health and reducing the risk of future overdoses. 

There is an urgent need for people who have survived an overdose to be connected with further care, as evidenced by the following statistics from a 2020 study on emergency department treatment for opioid overdoses in Massachusetts:[3]

  • Approximately one in 20 people who receive emergency room treatment for an overdose die within one year of being discharged. 
  • Many of these deaths occur within two days of being discharged from an emergency department.
  • Two-thirds of the fatal overdoses studied were caused by further opioid use.

The Importance of Intervention

Quickly identifying the signs of a pill overdose and seeking treatment can be the difference between life and death. Pills, especially contaminated ones, can cause fatal overdoses in anyone. Fortunately, medical interventions are available that can reverse overdoses and save lives.[8] 

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, don’t hesitate to seek help. Addiction treatment can help anyone regain control of their lives. With the right treatment, you can stop all pill abuse and remove the risk of overdose from your life. Reach out for help today.  

Updated February 17, 2024
  1. Overdose. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Published January 2, 2023. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  2. Opioid overdose. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Published December 8, 2023. Accessed January 27, 2023.
  3. Many people treated for opioid overdose in emergency departments die within 1 year. Tobin, S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published April 2, 2020. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  4. Signs of a drug-related overdose. California Department of Public Health. Published June 7, 2023. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  5. Drug most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths: United States, 2011-2016. Hedegaard, H., Bastian, B., Trinidad, J., Spencer, M., and Warner, M. National Vital Statistics Report. 2018:67(9): 1-14.
  6. Risk factors for opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose. U.S. Department of Labor. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  7. Opioid overdose. World Health Organization. Published August 29, 2023. Accessed January 27, 2024.
  8. Treatment of opioid overdose: current approaches and recent advances. Britch SC, Walsh SL. Psychopharmacology. 2022;239(7):2063-2081.
Take The Next Step Now
Call Us Now Check Insurance