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Signs of Opioid Overdose

Signs of opioid overdose include a pale complexion, body limpness, loss of consciousness, and shallow breathing.

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What Happens When Someone Overdoses on Opioids?

Overdosing on opioids is incredibly traumatic to the body and brain, affecting a person’s physiology and potentially causing seizures that can result in permanent brain damage. 

During an opioid overdose, the brain gets limited oxygen flow, and brain damage can start to occur after only four minutes of this oxygen deprivation. The brain’s communication with the heart can be compromised, making a person’s heartbeat slow or stop altogether.

With the bloodstream inundated with opioids, veins can collapse, compromising blood flow to vital parts of the body. An opioid overdose can also trigger slowed breathing and cause fluid to enter the lungs, resulting in pulmonary edema.

Opioid overdoses occur for a variety of different reasons. Some overdoses result from illicit drugs, like heroin or morphine, while others result from prescribed medications. In addition to heroin and morphine, common opioids include codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and hydromorphone.

How to Spot an Opioid Overdose

The best thing you can do is call 911 immediately.

Opioid overdose presents multiple warning signs, including these:

  • Pale complexion
  • Blue or purple lips or fingernails
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slow breathing
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Passing out
  • Intense muscle relaxation or the body going limp

In extreme cases, an opioid overdose can cause foaming at the mouth. A person who overdoses can lose the ability to swallow, and this can cause the person to choke.

What to Do During an Opioid Overdose

If you are able to identify someone overdosing on opioids or if you experience an overdose yourself, the best thing you can do is call 911 immediately. Be as honest and transparent as possible to avoid confusion, so authorities have an idea of what measures need to be taken upon arrival.

In the event that Narcan (also called naloxone) is available on the premises, administer it as soon as possible, preferably within the first two to three minutes after identifying the overdose. Narcan has properties that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and temporarily restore breathing.

Make sure that the person who is overdosing has an open airway and no obstruction to promote healthy breathing. If Narcan is not available, administer CPR if you have the training to do so.

Good Samaritan Laws

If an individual overdoses on opioids, bystanders might be hesitant to call 911 for fear of coming into contact with law enforcement. In many cases, opioid overdose occurs because of illicit use.

If you have reservations about reporting an opioid overdose, many states incorporate and enforce Good Samaritan laws. These laws offer protection to individuals who witness and report an overdose. 

Good Samaritan laws are applicable even if criminal activity has occurred. These laws are designed to encourage any bystanders to spring into action.

Ways to Prevent Opioid Overdose

According to the CDC, 85 percent of drug overdose deaths occurred due to fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine in 2019. Prevention efforts can go a long way in saving lives.

Simply knowing how prevalent opioid overdose is currently will help an individual make educated decisions about their health and pain management protocol. If patients are aware of the risks associated with opioid use, they may take a different approach when taking the medication, and some individuals with a history of misuse may opt for alternative pain management techniques.  

Prescription drug monitoring programs encourage health care professionals to engage in responsible prescribing practices. Assessing a patient’s history is crucial to reducing the number of individuals who abuse and overdose on opioids. But the goal is to still give patients appropriate access to safe pain management resources.

Patient education regarding the safe use, storage, and disposal of opioids helps to raise awareness and keep people safe.

Again, if an overdose occurs, the best way to prevent further damage is to call 911 and administer Narcan or naloxone as soon as possible to reverse the effects of opioids.  

Treatment for Opioid Abuse

New approaches to opioid use disorder (OUD) stress looking at the use of opioids through a health care lens more strongly than a criminal lens.  

Conventional ideologies often support the idea of quitting drugs “cold turkey.” However, opioids present a unique hurdle. If an opioid use disorder is present, the body has developed a dependence on the drug. Quitting suddenly will trigger withdrawal symptoms.

These prescription medications have been shown to be effective in the treatment of opioid use disorder: 

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine 
  • Extended-release naltrexone

These prescription medications have been approved by the FDA. They have been used to treat OUD successfully in a number of patients from all walks of life.

Behavioral therapies are also commonly parts of the recovery process. These approaches hold the individual accountable for progress and provide in-depth therapeutic services that will help treat opioid misuse successfully. In addition, people often find recovery support in peer support groups, such as 12-step programs.

Opioid Addiction Resources

There are several nonprofit and government resources that can help individuals struggling with opioid addiction.

  • SAMHSA: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers services and resources that promote awareness of substance abuse and associated mental health issues. SAMHSA can help individuals seek medical attention for their addiction and get the assistance they need.
  • Local resources: Depending on the state the individual lives in, there are state and municipal resources that provide information and resources regarding opioid and other drug addictions in addition to mental health resources. Most major cities have divisions dedicated to substance abuse prevention and treatment resources.
  • Shatterproof: This is a non-profit organization that helps those living with addiction with the goal of empowering health professionals, treatment providers, health care organizations, individuals, and communities to come together to prevent and treat addiction. Shatterproof also works tirelessly to get rid of the stigma attached to drug dependency and remove barriers to treatment for those who need it.
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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated June 8, 2023
  1. Opioid Overdose. (April 2022). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  2. FDA Approves Naloxone Injection to Counteract Opioid Overdoses.
  3. Overdose Prevention. (May 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  4. A New Approach to Opioid Addiction. (July 2022). UCI News.
  5. Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). (August 2022). National Institutes of Health.
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