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The Most Common Causes of a Drug Overdose

A drug overdose is a serious medical emergency that can be fatal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 92,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2020. That’s an average of 252 deaths per day, and a significant jump from pre-pandemic overdose levels. Nonfatal overdoses are more difficult to track, but most experts agree that their numbers are also increasing at an alarming rate. 

5 Common Causes of Drug Overdoses

Drug overdoses can occur for a wide range of reasons, but the most common are as follows:

  1. Taking too much of a prescribed medication. Overdoses are often caused by people taking more of their medication than they are supposed to. This can happen accidentally if they don’t realize how much they’re supposed to take or deliberately if they are trying to get high. For example, people who like how they feel when taking opioid painkillers may take more than prescribed to get that feeling again or increase their dosage without telling their doctor because they’ve developed a tolerance.
  2. Using illicit drugs. Illicit drugs carry a high risk of overdose because it’s difficult to know how potent they are and what other substances they may be cut with. For example, fentanyl is often added to heroin to increase its potency. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, so this contamination greatly increases the risk of an accidental overdose. 
  3. Taking multiple drugs at the same time. Taking multiple drugs raises the risk of overdose because each drug can interact with the others and increase the severity of side effects. For example, taking an opioid painkiller along with a sedative can slow down your breathing and lead to an overdose. 
  4. Drinking alcohol while taking drugs. Alcohol poisoning can be fatal on its own, but drinking alcohol while taking certain medications can intensify their effects and lead to an overdose. For example, combining opioids with alcohol can cause dangerously slow breathing. 
  5. Existing health conditions. Some underlying health conditions can increase the risk of overdosing on medications even when they’re taken as directed. For example, people with liver disease may not be able to metabolize medications as quickly, which can lead to dangerous levels building up in their system.

How to Recognize a Drug Overdose

A drug overdose is a potentially fatal medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. The most common symptoms that suggest a person is experiencing a drug overdose include:

  • Slowed or stopped breathing. If someone has overdosed on a drug, one of the first signs may be that their breathing has slowed down or stopped altogether. This is especially true for drugs like opioids, which can cause respiratory depression.
  • Clammy skin. A drug overdose can cause clammy skin because the body isn’t getting enough oxygen and is starting to shut down.
  • Nausea or vomiting. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of a drug overdose due to chemicals in the drugs causing irritation in the stomach.
  • Smaller pupils. The pupils may become smaller than normal if someone has overdosed on a drug. This is because drugs like opioids can cause narrowing of the blood vessels.
  • Slowed or irregular heartbeat. A slowed or irregular heartbeat is often caused by the same mechanism that slows down breathing.
  • Confusion or delirium. High levels of drugs in the body can cause the brain to become confused and agitated.
  • Extreme drowsiness or trouble waking up. Some drugs can cause the body’s natural functions to become depressed, which interferes with sleep and wake cycles.
  • Seizures. Some drugs can cause the body to become overstimulated, which can lead to seizures.

A person experiencing an overdose needs immediate medical care. Call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room. Prompt medical care increases overdose survival rates and reduces the risk of complications such as permanent cardiovascular damage or neurological deficits.

Getting Addiction Treatment After a Drug Overdose

Surviving a drug overdose can be a “rock bottom” moment that inspires a person to seek addiction treatment. The recommended treatment after a drug overdose often includes:  

  • Detox. In a medically managed detox, a person stops using drugs and allows their body to clear the substances out of their system. They are monitored by medical professionals to prevent complications and keep them as comfortable as possible during the withdrawal process. 
  • Inpatient treatment. People seeking residential treatment stay at a facility where they receive around-the-clock care from medical and mental health professionals. Treatment is personalized to fit individual needs and addresses factors such as chronic pain, past trauma, and any co-occurring mental health disorders. Waypoint Recovery Center provides inpatient treatment at its Cameron, South Carolina location. 
  • Outpatient treatment. After a person graduates from residential treatment, they are not “cured” of their addiction. They will need outpatient treatment that helps them continue building the recovery skills they developed in residential treatment and supports their transition back to independent living. At Waypoint Recovery Center, we provide outpatient treatment at our North Charleston, South Carolina location. 
  • Alumni services. Building a connection to the recovery community provides a sense of accountability and the support a person needs to face the challenges of life in recovery with confidence. Waypoint Recovery Center offers a wide range of alumni services for graduates of our inpatient and outpatient treatment programs. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please know that recovery is always possible. Contact our admissions representatives today to learn more about our treatment programs and how you or your loved one can take the first steps toward a brighter future. 


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For more information about Waypoint Recovery Center’s substance use disorder treatment services, please contact us anytime at (888) 978-5188.

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5401 Netherby Lane, Suite 402
North Charleston, SC 29420
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499 Wild Hearts Rd
Cameron, SC 29030
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