Warning Signs of OverdoseA person who is on the verge of an overdose on depressants may not realize the severity of what is happening despite the many warning signs, which include the following:
When a substance is consumed orally, such as a pill or alcohol, it is first filtered through the liver and stomach before it travels through the bloodstream and into the brain. This method of use slows down the process of intoxication, but with repeated use of substances, an overdose can still occur. When a substance is snorted, smoked, or injected, it travels to the brain much faster and in a higher amount. These methods of administration cause more intense effects and are also more dangerous and likely to lead to overdose. But, as noted, many other factors affect this process. Eventually, the blood that contains drugs and/or alcohol pumps the substances through the body, where they land on receptors that are responsible for feelings of reward and well-being, such as dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline, or GABA. These neurotransmitters, which occur naturally in normal levels, are given a boost by these substances and produce euphoria, in addition to several other effects. When the high subsides or as more substances are used, the person affected can start to get very drowsy, and experience altering states of wakefulness and alertness. If a person has combined the used of stimulants and depressants, known as a speedball, this process may take longer. But ultimately, excessive depressants in a person’s system are going to win the battle and can cause confusion, paranoia, heart arrhythmia and heart attack, profound central nervous depression, or death.
- Extreme drowsiness
- Slipping in and out of consciousness
- Slowed or labored breathing
- Cold, clammy skin
- A bluish tint to hands and feet
- Slow and/or weak pulse
A Word on DepressantsWhen a person uses a high amount of depressants, their breathing and heart rate will begin to slow. At the base of the human brain is a respiratory control center that controls breathing, and reacts to the level of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your blood to encourage you to breathe. During an overdose, however, the slowed breathing that occurs with opioid, sedative, or alcohol ingestion becomes perilously slow and can lead to a complete stop. As a person’s heart rate slows, oxygen levels may fall low enough that the heart starts having abnormal rhythms and is not functioning properly. At this point, some overdose victims experience a sudden cardiac arrest. Those who do not continue to suffer from problems related to having an overwhelming amount of drugs in the brain and the body will stop receiving the correct signals that tell it to breathe. Lungs and heart may be barely working. At this point, the brain damage can occur from a lack of oxygen. Irreversible brain damage can occur after four minutes of oxygen deprivation. If a person receives CPR during this period, brain damage can be limited or reduced. Then, the victim may foam at the mouth or choke caused by fluid leading into the lungs’ airspaces. This effect can result in aspiration as the body’s natural gag response is suppressed by CNS depression. As the person continues to lose consciousness, natural secretions in the throat pool and cause asphyxiation. Persons who throw up can also choke on their vomit and die. An overdose that gets to this point can cause seizures due to a lack of oxygen to the brain, causing further damage. Occasionally, people who have suffered an overdose like this can end up paralyzed and unable to speak.
Medications to Stop Depressant OverdoseIf administered promptly, a drug known as naloxone (Narcan) can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. This drug is widely available and typically carried by first responders. Most major pharmacy chains sell it without a prescription for about $20. However, it is important to note that sometimes overdose sufferers require multiple treatments of Narcan, depending on the amount of opioids in their system. Narcan use should always be attempted if the patient is still alive, and can be administered intranasally or given through an IV. Narcan removes opioids from receptors in the central nervous system and replaces the opioids without activating the receptor. In second to minutes, a life can be saved.
A Word on StimulantsAs noted, stimulants, such as Adderall, cocaine, or meth, are less likely to cause an overdose, but it can occur. When a stimulant is mixed with a potent depressant, conflicting effects on a person’s body can lead to severe complications and heart attack. When too much of a stimulant or multiple stimulants are used, a person may experience extreme effects that are basically the opposite of an overdose on depressants, which may include the following:
If a person overdoses on a stimulant, the most significant risks to their health are dehydration, hyperthermia, stroke, seizures, and heart attack. Even if the person does not die, they can suffer from long-term problems related to these adverse health outcomes. Like all overdoses, when this occurs, it is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately.
- Agitation and irritability
- Increased respiratory rate
- Rapid pulse
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Rapid eye movement
- Compulsive or repetitive behaviors
- Muscle spasms
- Trembling and shakiness