A drug overdose is the accidental or intentional use of a drug or medicine in an amount that is higher than is normally used.
All drugs have the potential to be misused, whether legally prescribed by a doctor, purchased over-the-counter at the local drug store, or bought illegally on the street. Taken in combination with other drugs or with alcohol, even drugs normally considered safe can cause death or serious long term consequences. Children are particularly at risk for accidental overdose, accounting for over one million poisonings each year from drugs, alcohol, and other chemicals and toxic substances. People who suffer from depression and who have suicidal thoughts are also at high risk for drug overdose.
Causes and symptoms
Accidental drug overdose may be the result of misuse of prescription medicines or commonly used medications like pain relievers and cold remedies. Symptoms differ depending on the drug taken. Some of the drugs commonly involved in overdoses are listed below along with symptoms and outcomes.
Acetaminophen is the generic name for the commonly used pain reliever Tylenol. Overdose of this drug causes liver damage with symptoms that include loss of appetite, tiredness, nausea and vomiting, paleness, and sweating. The next stage of symptoms indicates liver failure and includes abdominal pain and tenderness, swelling of the liver, and abnormal blood tests for liver enzymes. In the last stage of this poisoning, liver failure advances and the patient becomes jaundiced, with yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. They may also experience kidney failure, bleeding disorders, and encephalopathy (swelling of the brain).
Anticholinergic drugs (drugs that block the action of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter) like atropine, scopolamine, belladonna, antihistamines, and antipsychotic agents cause the skin and moist tissues (like in the mouth and nose) to become dry and flushed. Dilated pupils, an inability to urinate, and mental disturbances are also symptoms. Severe toxicity can lead to seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, extremely high blood pressure, and coma.
Antidepressant drugs like amitriptyline, desipramine, and nortriptyline can cause irregular heart rate, vomiting, low blood pressure, confusion, and seizures. An overdose of antidepressants also causes symptoms similar to those seen with anticholinergic drug overdoses.
Cholinergic drugs (drugs that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system) like carbamate and pilocarpine cause nausea, diarrhea, increased secretion of body fluids (sweat, tears, saliva, and urine), fatigue, and muscle weakness. Convulsions are possible. Death can occur due to respiratory failure and heart failure.
Cocaine and crack cocaine overdoses cause seizures, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, paranoia, and other changes in behavior. Heart attack or stroke are serious risks within three days after cocaine overdose.
Depressant drugs (tranquilizers, antianxiety drugs, sleeping pills) cause sleepiness, slowed or slurred speech, difficulty walking or standing, blurred vision, impaired ability to think, disorientation, and mood changes. Overdose symptoms can include slowed breathing, very low blood pressure, stupor, coma, shock, and death.
Digoxin, a drug used to regulate the heart, can cause irregular heart beats, nausea, confusion, loss of appetite, and blurred vision.
Narcotics or opiates are drugs like heroin, morphine, and codeine. Clonidine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil) are also in this category. Overdose with opiate drugs causes sedation (sleepiness), low blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and slowed breathing. Pinpoint pupils, where the black centers of the eyes become smaller than normal, are common in opiate overdose. However, if other drugs are taken at the same time as the opiates, they may counteract this effect on the pupils. A serious risk is that the patient will stop breathing.
Salicylates are found in aspirin and some creams or ointments used for muscle and joint pain (like BenGay), and creams for psoriasis, a skin condition. Initial symptoms are gastrointestinal irritation, fever, and vomiting, possibly with blood in the vomit. This overdose will cause metabolic acidosis and respiratory alkalosis, conditions where the body's acid/base balance is malfunctioning. Symptoms include rapid heart beat and fast breathing. Nervous system symptoms include confusion, hallucinations, tiredness, and ringing in the ears. An increased tendency to bleed is also common. Serious complications include acute renal failure, coma, and heart failure. Acute salicylate poisoning can lead to death.
Diagnosis of a drug overdose may be based on the symptoms that develop, however, the drug may do extensive damage to the body before significant symptoms develop. If the patient is conscious, he or she may be able to tell what drugs were taken and in what amounts. The patient's recent medical and social history may also help in a diagnosis. For example, a list of medications that the patient takes, whether or not alcohol was consumed recently, even if the patient has eaten in the last few hours before the overdose, can be valuable in determining what was taken and how fast it will be absorbed into the system.
Different drugs have varying effects on the body's acid/base balance and on certain elements in the blood like potassium and calcium. Blood tests can be used to detect changes in body chemistry that may give clues to what drugs were taken. Blood can also be screened for various drugs in the system. Once the overdose drug is identified, blood tests can be used to monitor how fast the drug is being cleared out of the body. Urine tests can also be used to screen for some drugs and to detect changes in the body's chemistry. Blood and urine tests may show if there is damage to the liver or kidneys as a result of the overdose.
If a drug overdose is discovered or suspected, and the person is unconscious, having convulsions, or is not breathing, call for emergency help immediately. If the person who took the drug is not having symptoms, do not wait to see if symptoms develop; call a poison control center immediately. Providing as much information as possible to the poison control center can help determine what the next course of action should be.
The poison control center, paramedics, and emergency room staff will want to know:
- What drug(s) were taken try to locate the drug's container?
- How much of the drug was taken?
- When was the drug taken?
- Was the drug taken with alcohol or any other drugs or chemicals?
- What is the age of the patient?
- What symptoms are the patient experiencing?
- Is the patient conscious?
- Is the patient breathing?
The poison control center may recommend trying to get the patient to vomit. A liquid called ipecac syrup, which is used to induce vomiting, is available from pharmacies without a prescription. Pediatricians may recommend that families keep ipecac syrup on hand in households with children. This medication should be used only on the advice of a medical professional. Vomiting should not be induced if the patient is unconscious.
Emergency medical treatment may include:
- Assessment of the patient's airway and breathing to making sure that the trachea, the passage to the lungs, is not blocked. If needed, a tube may be inserted through the mouth and into the trachea to help the patient breath. This procedure is called intubation.
- Assessment of the patient's heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and other physical signs that might indicate the effects of the drug.
- Blood and urine samples may be collected to test for the presence of the suspected overdose drug, and any other drugs or alcohol that might be present.
- Elimination of the drug that has not yet been absorbed is attempted. Vomiting may be induced using ipecac syrup or other drugs that cause vomiting. Ipecac syrup should not be given to patients who overdosed with tricyclic antidepressants, theophylline, or any drug that causes a significant change in mental status. If a patient vomits while unconscious, there is a serious risk of choking.
- Gastric lavage, or washing out the stomach, may be attempted. For this procedure a tube flexible tube is inserted through the nose, down the throat, and into the stomach. The contents of the stomach are then suctioned out through the tube. A solution of saline (salt water) is injected into the tube to rinse out the stomach. This solution is then suctioned out. This is the process used when someone has his/her stomach pumped.
- Activated charcoal is sometimes given to absorb the drug.
- Medication to stimulate urination or defecation may be given to try to flush the excess drug out of the body faster.
- Intravenous (IV) fluids may be given. An intravenous line, a needle inserted into a vein, may be put into the arm or back of the hand. Fluids, either sterile saline (salt water solution) or dextrose (sugar water solution), can be administered through this line. Increasing fluids can help to flush the drug out of the system and to reestablish balance of fluids and minerals in the body. The pH (acid/base balance) of the body may need to be corrected by administering electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and bicarbonate through this IV line. If drugs need to be administered quickly, they can also be injected directly into the IV line.
- Hemodialysis is a procedure where blood is circulated out of the body, pumped through a dialysis machine, then reintroduced back into the body. This process can be used to filter some drugs out of the blood. It may also be used temporarily or long term if the kidneys are damaged due to the overdose.
- Antidotes are available for some drug overdoses. An antidote is another drug that counteracts or blocks the overdose drug. For example, acetaminophen overdose can be treated with an oral medication, N-acetylcysteine (Mucomyst), if the level of acetaminophen found in the blood is extremely high. Naloxone is an anti-narcotic drug that is given to counteract narcotic poisoning. Nalmefen or methadone may also be used.
- Psychiatric evaluation may be recommended if the drug overdose was taken deliberately.
While many victims of drug overdose recover without long term effects, there can be serious consequences. Some drug overdoses cause the failure of major organs like the kidneys or liver, or failure of whole systems like the respiratory or circulatory systems. Patients who survive drug overdose may need kidney dialysis, kidney or liver transplant, or ongoing care as a result of heart failure, stroke, or coma. Death can occur in almost any drug overdose situation, particularly if treatment is not started immediately.
To protect children from accidental drug overdose, all medications should be stored in containers with child resistant caps. All drugs should be out of sight and out of reach of children, preferably in a locked cabinet. Prescription medications should be used according to directions and only by the person whose name is on the label. Threats of suicide need to be taken seriously and appropriate help sought for people with depression or other mental illness that may lead to suicide.
"Drug Overdose." American Institute of Preventative Medicine. 〈http://www.healthy.net〉.
Graber, Mark A., and Rhea Allen. "Emergency Medicine: Overdose and Toxindromes." University of Iowa Family Practice Handbook. 〈http://www.vh.org/Providers/ClinRef/FPHandbook/Chapter01/20-1.html〉.
Gastric lavage— Also called a stomach pump. For this procedure, a flexible tube is inserted through the nose, down the throat, and into the stomach and the contents of the stomach are suctioned out. The inside of the stomach is rinsed with a saline (salt water) solution.
Intubation— A procedure where a tube is inserted through the mouth and into the trachea keep the airway open and to help the patient breathe.