Drug overdose vector

Drug Overdose: Overview and Practice Questions (2024)

by | Updated: Apr 22, 2024

Drug overdose is a critical public health issue, marked by its devastating consequences on individuals, families, and communities.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of overdose, understanding its risk factors, and knowing how to respond with appropriate treatment and prevention strategies are paramount.

This article provides an overview of a drug overdose, including essential insights into drug identification, intervention, and measures to mitigate its occurrence.

Free Access
25+ RRT Cheat Sheets and Quizzes

Get instant access to 25+ premium quizzes, mini-courses, and downloadable cheat sheets for FREE.

What is a Drug Overdose?

A drug overdose occurs when a person consumes a drug or substance in a quantity or with a potency that exceeds the levels considered safe or therapeutic for them. This can happen intentionally, as in cases of attempted self-harm, or accidentally, through misuse of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, or illicit substances.

Drug overdose pill vector illustration

Effects of a Drug Overdose

The effects of a drug overdose can vary widely depending on the type of substance involved, the amount taken, the method of consumption, and the individual’s own physical condition.

Overdoses can lead to a range of harmful health effects, from temporary discomfort and non-life-threatening symptoms to severe medical conditions, organ damage, and even death.

The specific symptoms and severity of an overdose depend on the drug involved.

For example, an opioid overdose can suppress breathing to dangerous levels, potentially leading to death, while an overdose of stimulants like cocaine or amphetamines can lead to heart problems, seizures, and extreme agitation.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a drug overdose can vary widely depending on the type of substance involved, the amount ingested, and the individual’s physiological response.

However, some general signs and symptoms are commonly observed in many types of drug overdoses:

Central Nervous System Symptoms

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Drowsiness or stupor
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Inability to wake up (coma)
  • Seizures
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness

Respiratory Symptoms

Cardiovascular Symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Slow heart rate
  • High or low blood pressure
  • Chest pain

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dry mouth

Skin Symptoms

  • Cool, clammy skin or hot, dry skin
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Sweating

Other Symptoms

  • Pupil size changes (either pinpoint or dilated pupils)
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis
  • Uncontrollable movements

Signs From Specific Substances

  • Opioids: Markedly slow breathing, pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness.
  • Stimulants (e.g., cocaine, amphetamines): Hyperactivity, paranoia, rapid heart rate, high body temperature.
  • Sedatives (e.g., benzodiazepines, alcohol): Profound confusion, severely slurred speech, unsteady walking.
  • Hallucinogens: Severe agitation, hallucinations, paranoia.

Note: Prompt recognition of these signs and symptoms is crucial for timely medical intervention, which can significantly impact the outcome. If a drug overdose is suspected, it’s important to call emergency services immediately, as many of these conditions can rapidly become life-threatening.

Risk Factors

Drug abuse is a complex issue with various contributing factors that can significantly impact individuals and communities.

Here are some commonly identified risk factors associated with drug abuse:

  • Genetic Predisposition: Genetics can play a significant role in an individual’s vulnerability to substance abuse. People with a family history of drug or alcohol addiction may have a higher risk.
  • Environmental Influences: A person’s environment, including family, friends, and socioeconomic status, can influence the likelihood of drug abuse. Exposure to drug use in these settings can normalize the behavior and increase risk.
  • Early Use: Starting drug use at an early age can increase the likelihood of developing addiction. Young people’s brains are still developing, and drug use can have a more significant, lasting impact.
  • Mental Health Disorders: Individuals with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at a higher risk of drug abuse as they may use substances as a form of self-medication.
  • Peer Pressure: Especially among adolescents and young adults, peer pressure can significantly influence the decision to start using drugs.
  • Lack of Family Involvement: A lack of close family ties or supervision can increase the risk of drug abuse, as individuals may not receive the guidance or emotional support needed to resist substance use.
  • Stress: High levels of stress, whether from personal, professional, or financial sources, can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
  • Trauma: Experiencing traumatic events, especially in childhood, can increase the risk of drug abuse in later life.
  • Substance Availability: Easy access to drugs or alcohol can increase the likelihood of substance abuse.
  • Sensation Seeking: Individuals who have a propensity for seeking out new and intense experiences may be more likely to experiment with drugs.

Note: Understanding these risk factors is crucial for prevention and treatment efforts, enabling targeted interventions that can help reduce the incidence of drug abuse.


Treatment for a drug overdose depends on the specific substance involved and the symptoms presented. Key approaches include:

  • Stabilization: Ensuring the airway is clear, breathing is adequate, and the heart is functioning properly. This may involve ventilation support or oxygen supplementation.
  • Activated Charcoal: Administered in some cases to absorb the substance and prevent further absorption in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Narcan: Specifically for opioid overdoses, Narcan (naloxone) is an emergency medication that can rapidly reverse the effects.
  • Detoxification: Involves safely removing the substance from the body, sometimes using medication-assisted therapy to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Antidotes: Some overdoses have specific antidotes that can counteract the toxic effects of the substance.
  • Supportive Care: Addresses symptoms and complications arising from the overdose, such as seizures or organ damage.

Note: Treatment may also involve long-term strategies for substance use disorder, including counseling and support groups, to prevent future overdoses.


Preventing a drug overdose involves a multifaceted approach, targeting both the supply of drugs and the demand for them.

Key strategies include:

  • Education: Increasing awareness about the risks of drug misuse, the signs of an overdose, and the importance of using prescription drugs only as directed.
  • Prescription Monitoring: Implementing and utilizing prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to track prescriptions for controlled substances, thereby helping to identify and prevent misuse.
  • Safe Prescribing Practices: Encouraging healthcare providers to follow guidelines for prescribing opioids and other potentially addictive substances, including considering non-opioid alternatives for pain management.
  • Access to Treatment: Expanding access to treatment for substance use disorders, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT), counseling, and support groups.
  • Narcan Accessibility: Increasing the availability of Narcan (naloxone), a life-saving medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, to first responders, community members, and family members of individuals at risk of overdose.
  • Regulation and Enforcement: Strengthening regulations and enforcement measures to reduce the availability of illicit drugs and control the distribution of prescription medications.
  • Community Programs: Supporting community-based programs that offer education, prevention, and treatment services, as well as initiatives that address the root causes of substance misuse, such as poverty and trauma.

Note: Prevention efforts require collaboration across sectors, including healthcare, law enforcement, education, and community organizations, to effectively reduce the incidence of drug overdoses.

How Does a Drug Overdose Affect the Respiratory System?

A drug overdose can have a significant impact on the respiratory system, often leading to serious complications or even death. Here’s how:

  • Respiratory Depression: Many substances, especially opioids (like morphine, heroin, fentanyl), can lead to respiratory depression. This means they slow down the breathing rate and reduce the volume of air that is inhaled with each breath. The brain’s respiratory center becomes less responsive to carbon dioxide levels in the blood, leading to decreased respiratory effort.
  • Aspiration: During an overdose, a person might lose consciousness or their gag reflex, increasing the risk of aspiration. This is when food, stomach acid, or saliva is inhaled into the lungs, causing inflammation, infection (aspiration pneumonia), or blockage of the airways.
  • Hypoxia: Reduced breathing efficiency can lead to hypoxia, a condition where not enough oxygen reaches the tissues. This can damage organs, including the brain, and if severe enough, can lead to coma or death.
  • Pulmonary Edema: Some drugs, especially opioids, can cause non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema, which is a sudden, life-threatening buildup of fluid in the lungs. This can make breathing difficult and reduce the oxygen that gets to the rest of the body.
  • Hypercapnia: Slow or ineffective breathing can lead to an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood (hypercapnia). This can lead to respiratory acidosis, where the blood becomes too acidic, disrupting cellular functions and leading to further complications.

Note: Quick and effective medical intervention is critical to address these respiratory complications, often involving supporting the person’s breathing, administering antidotes (like naloxone for opioid overdoses), and providing other lifesaving treatments.

What is Narcan?

Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, a life-saving medication widely used to reverse opioid overdoses. Opioids include drugs such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl, and prescription pain medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Naloxone works by quickly binding to opioid receptors in the brain, blocking the effects of the opioid and reversing the respiratory depression that can lead to death in overdose situations.

Narcan can be administered through various routes, including nasal spray and intramuscular (into the muscle), intravenous (into a vein), or subcutaneous (under the skin) injections.

The nasal spray form is particularly designed for ease of use, allowing non-medical bystanders and first responders to provide immediate assistance in an emergency.

The effects of naloxone can begin within minutes of administration, which is crucial in an overdose situation where every second counts.

However, its effects are temporary, and it may wear off before the opioids in the system do, so it’s essential for someone who has received Narcan to get medical attention immediately.

Note: Naloxone is considered a critical tool in the fight against the opioid overdose epidemic. It has been made more widely available in many places to laypersons, emergency responders, and in public spaces to ensure it can be used quickly in case of an overdose.

Drug Overdose Practice Questions

1. What is a drug overdose?
An accidental or intentional use of a drug or medicine in an amount that is higher than recommended.

2. Which pharmaceutical causes the most drug overdose deaths?

3. What drug is given to someone suspected of an opiod overdose?
Naloxone (Narcan)

4. What is the typical ABG interpretation for a drug overdose?
Respiratory acidosis

5. What is the brand name of Naloxone?

6. Why intubate a patient who may have a drug overdose?
To protect their airway and prevent possible aspiration.

7. What breath sounds are typically heard for a drug overdose patient?
Diminished breath sounds

8. What time of day do drug overdose patients typically present to the ER?
Late at night

9. What are the common routes of exposure to a drug?
Inhalation, ingestion, and injection.

10. What are the most common drugs that people overdose on?
Heroin and OxyContin.

11. Are deaths from drug overdoses continuing to rise?
Yes, the death rate in increasing.

12. What can cause hypoventilation when taken accidentally or intentionally?
A drug overdose

13. What is a potentially life-threatening side effect of medication and recreational drugs?
Overdose and hypoventilation

14. What is a drug overdose with hypoventilation?
Also known as respiratory depression, it involves taking in a larger quantity of drugs that leads to hypoventilation, which causes the body to become acidotic. By definition, it causes an increased concentration of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and respiratory acidosis. Hypoventilation can be considered a precursor to hypoxia, and its lethality is attributed to hypoxia with carbon dioxide toxicity.

15. What are the most common and particular drugs that cause respiratory depression, especially when combined with other depressants?

16. What are some common drugs that depress the CNS, causing hypoventilation leading to respiratory acidosis?
Ethanol, benzodiazepines (alprazolam), barbiturates, sedatives, opioids (i.e., narcotics), methadone, glutethimide, and ketamine.

17. What are common examples of opioids?
Oxycodone, fentanyl, heroin, morphine, and codeine.

18. What are the clinical manifestations of a drug overdose?
Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pale skin, possible cyanosis, abdominal pain, dizziness and loss of balance, seizures, drowsiness, confusion, hypoventilation leading to hypoxia, rapid shallow respirations, decreased blood pressure with vasodilation, signs and symptoms with hypercapnia, dyspnea, headache, hyperkalemia, dysrhythmias (due to increased K+), muscle weakness, hyperreflexia, hallucinations, disturbed vision, abnormal pupil dilation, impaired memory, possible coma, constipation, and irritability.

19. What are the risk factors for a drug overdose resulting in respiratory acidosis?
Drug addicts, addictive personality, people with memory loss (mistakenly taking medications due to forgetfulness), and the elderly.

20. What are the common antidotes for a drug overdose?
Naloxone (Narcan) for an opioid overdose, flumazenil (Romazicion) for versed and other, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Restore, Helicon), Vitamin K for a warfarin overdose, and protamine sulfate for a heparin overdose.

21. What diagnostics testing should be performed for a suspected drug overdose?
ABG, electrolytes, daily body weight, I and O, and EKG.

22. What is the prevalence of a drug overdose?
The prevalence of drug overdose varies widely by region, substance involved, and demographics, but it has been increasing globally, particularly with opioids being a major contributor.

23. Why are respiratory therapists needed to treat patients with a drug overdose?
Because the drugs often cause CNS depression and respiratory depression.

24. How do opiates work in the forebrain and spinal cord receptors?
They bind to the site and turn off pain centers in the brain, which may cause euphoria, drowsiness, CNS depression, and respiratory failure.

25. What are some signs of opiate abuse?
Restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, anger and combative behavior, and paranoia.

26. What are the treatments for an opiate overdose?
Activated charcoal, gastric lavage, Narcan, and oxygen therapy.

27. What do stimulants counter?

28. What are benzodiazepines, and what is an example?
They are used as antianxiety medications and hypnotics. Nembutal is one example that is used for anxiety and sleep disorders.

29. What are the effects of benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines, when used, can induce sedation, muscle relaxation, reduce anxiety, and help with sleep, but they also carry risks of dependence, withdrawal symptoms, and cognitive impairment. Overdose can lead to severe drowsiness, confusion, diminished reflexes, and potentially coma or death.

30. What is the treatment for a benzodiazepine overdose?
The treatment for a benzodiazepine overdose typically involves supportive care, including monitoring of vital signs and airway management, and may include the administration of flumazenil, a benzodiazepine receptor antagonist, in severe cases. However, flumazenil use is cautious due to the risk of precipitating withdrawal seizures in individuals dependent on benzodiazepines or other sedatives.

31. What is the treatment for alcohol abuse?
Volume replacement, electrolyte replacement, prevent self-injury, monitor level of consciousness, monitor for shock, ventilatory support (if needed), and benzodiazepines to fight delirium tremens.

32. What are some examples of stimulants?
Amphetamine, Ritalin, caffeine, and cocaine.

33. What are the effects of stimulants?
Increased BP, increased HR, and increased respirations.

34. Why do we use stimulants?
Narcolepsy, ADD/ADHD, asthma, depression, and obesity.

35. What does alcohol have to do with a drug overdose?
Alcohol can intensify the effects of many drugs, increasing the risk of overdose and respiratory depression, especially when combined with opioids or benzodiazepines.

36. What are the treatments for stimulant use?
Treatments for stimulant (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine) use include supportive care, behavioral therapies, and in some cases, medications to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

37. What are hallucinogens?
Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause profound alterations in perception, mood, and thought, leading to experiences of detachment from reality or hallucinations.

38. What are common examples of hallucinogens?
Common examples include lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), mescaline (derived from the peyote cactus), and DMT (found in certain Amazonian plants).

39. What is LSD?
Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a powerful synthetic hallucinogen known for its profound psychological effects, including altered senses, time perception, and visual hallucinations.

40. What is PCP?
Phencyclidine (PCP) is a dissociative anesthetic drug known for its mind-altering effects that can lead to a sense of detachment from reality, hallucinations, and, in high doses, psychosis.

41. How do you protect the airway of a drug overdose patient?
Protecting the airway involves ensuring it remains open and clear of obstructions. This may include positioning the patient to prevent aspiration, administering oxygen, using airway adjuncts like nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal airways, and, in severe cases, intubation by trained medical personnel.

42. What are the first three steps when a patient presents to the ER with a suspected overdose?
Assess the airway, assess breathing, and assess circulation.

43. What is screened on toxicology?
Opiates, benzos, salicylates, acetaminophen, and ethanol.

44. What are the causes of an overdose?
Therapeutic drug toxicity, accidental, environmental exposure, occupational exposure, recreational abuse, medication error, and purposeful self-harm.

45. What is an anticholinergic overdose?
Signs: blurred vision, mydriasis, decreased bowel movement, urinary retention, dry skin, fever, flushing, delirium, memory loss, and tachycardia. Substances: antihistamines, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.

46. What is a cholinergic overdose?
Symptoms: bronchorrhea, sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, tears, miosis, salivation, urination, and muscle twitch. Substances: insecticides, cholinesterase inhibitors, and organophosphates.

47. What role does naloxone play in opioid overdoses?
Naloxone is a life-saving medication that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, including respiratory depression, by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. It is often administered via nasal spray or injection.

48. How can benzodiazepine withdrawal be managed?
Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be managed through a gradual dose reduction (tapering) to minimize withdrawal symptoms, along with supportive care and, in some cases, the use of medications to ease symptoms like seizures or insomnia.

49. What are the signs of a stimulant overdose?
Signs of a stimulant overdose include extreme agitation, increased body temperature, hallucinations, convulsions, and cardiovascular complications like arrhythmias or heart attacks.

50. How does activated charcoal work in drug overdoses?
Activated charcoal can adsorb certain drugs in the stomach and intestines, preventing their absorption into the bloodstream. It’s most effective if administered shortly after ingestion of the substance but is not useful for all types of drugs.

Final Thoughts

Drug overdose remains a pressing concern, demanding comprehensive efforts from healthcare professionals, policymakers, and society as a whole.

Vigilance in recognizing the signs, addressing risk factors, and implementing effective treatment and prevention measures are vital in combating this epidemic.

Through concerted action and awareness, we can strive towards reducing the incidence of drug overdose and safeguarding the well-being of individuals and communities.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Rau’s Respiratory Care Pharmacology. 10th ed., Mosby, 2019.
  • Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
  • “Acute Drug Overdose: Clinical Profile, Etiologic Spectrum and Determinants of Duration of Intensive Medical Treatment.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Nov. 2012.

Recommended Reading