Drug overdose can occurs when too much of a drug, medication or poison is taken, which may result in a toxic effect on the body. Many substances can cause harm when taken in excess including alcohol, illegal (and ‘party’) drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medication, and some herbal remedies.
Types of overdose:
There are two main reasons people overdose.
• Accidental – a person takes the wrong substance (a drug or medication) or the wrong combination, in the wrong amount or at the wrong time, not knowing that it could cause them harm.
• Intentional misuse – a person takes an overdose to get ‘high’ or to cause deliberate harm. Any deliberate harm may be a cry for help or a suicide attempt. Intentional misuse of drugs may indicate a serious mental health problem and help should be sought even if the overdose has not caused you harm.
What are the symptoms in drug overdose?
A wide variety of symptoms is possible. Symptoms will depend on the substance, the amount taken and your health. Some poisons only cause minor distress or harm while others can cause serious problems and possibly death.
Symptoms can include:
• nausea and vomiting
• burning in the throat or stomach (oesophagitis or gastritis) after drinking a corrosive substance
• high or low blood pressure
• fitting (seizures)
• drowsiness, confusion or coma (the person is unconscious)
• organ damage or failure (especially the liver or kidneys)
• breathing problems
• respiratory or cardiac arrest – when the person stops breathing or their heart stops beating/pumping blood around the body
• There may be no symptoms, or only minor symptoms, even when severe damage is occurring in some overdoses (for example: paracetamol), so always seek medical help.
To avoid a drug overdose in future do the following steps:
• avoid illegal drugs of any kind
• take prescription medications as directed
• tell a doctor or health care professional of any previous medication problems
• ask your GP for available support systems in your area
• keep all medications and poisons locked away in a safe secure place out of reach of children
• keep all medications in original packaging
• if you take a number of medications each day, a pharmacy webster pack may be helpful to avoid overdose
Tests and treatment:
The tests and treatment given depend on what the person took and their medical needs. There are a number of possible tests and treatments. Some treatments need to be given soon after an overdose to prevent serious harm. It is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible, even if there are no symptoms.
• Blood tests, ECG (heart rhythm trace).
• Intravenous fluids (into the vein) or medication – usually to improve low blood pressure.
• Observation in hospital and monitoring of the person’s vital signs and heart rhythms (if necessary).
• Removing the substance from the body (such as using activated charcoal, which binds to the drug so the body cannot absorb it – this must be given within an hour of substance ingestion). Charcoal is rarely given and works only on certain types of poisons.
• An antidote may be given to reverse the effect of the toxic substance (for some drugs).
• Admission to hospital for further treatment.