Prescription Opioid Overdose: Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

opioid overdose

Prescription opioids have been the main culprit behind the rise in drug overdoses across the U.S. 2017 is the latest year on overdose data. In that year, approximately 70,000 people died from drug overdoses. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the country. 68% of all overdose deaths involve either a prescription opioid or illegal opioid like heroin. Just because a drug is legal does not make it safe or non-addictive. 

Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic and deaths related to prescription opioid overdose have gotten so bad that the U.S. government has declared it a public health crisis. For loved ones of prescription opioid users, it’s crucial to know the signs of overdose. In most cases, prescription drug overdoses are unintentional. With swift attention, treatment methods for overdose are highly effective and fast-acting.

What are prescription opioids?

Opioids and opiates are a type of drug that is processed from the opium poppy. These drugs are incredibly powerful, offering users potent pain relief, among other effects. Prescription opioids are used as painkillers in medical settings, but illegal opioids like heroin are used for recreational purposes. Prescription opioids also have highly addictive properties, and many people misuse their prescriptions to induce intense and addictive euphoria. Other common side effects when using opioids include slowed breathing, stomach upset, disorientation, and drowsiness. The most commonly prescribed opioid drugs are:

  • Morphine
  • Vicodin
  • Percocet
  • Codeine
  • Oxycontin
  • Fentanyl

Why are prescription opioids dangerous?

Many people can use prescription opioids correctly and safely, but opioids significantly impact brain chemistry. This makes them addictive and potentially dangerous if someone were to take too much. 

The human body possesses many natural opioid receptors throughout the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. These opioid receptors impact the way a person feels both pleasure and pain. When someone takes a synthetic opioid, the chemicals in these drugs bind to the body’s opioid receptors. This mechanism blocks pain signals from going to the brain and also influences the mind to produce dopamine neurotransmitter chemicals. Dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and is what makes someone feel euphoric or “high.” Unfortunately, this process can reinforce someone’s desire to take the drug and can start them down a path of dependence and addiction.

Another danger with opioid drugs is how quickly they influence the brain and body to build a tolerance and dependence on the chemicals. Any time someone takes an addictive substance, their body will eventually get used to having a certain dosage in the person’s system. So, someone who is looking to experience a high will need more and more of the substance to get the desired effect. With opioids, this process happens more quickly and is one of the reasons why people can become addicted to these types of drugs after only one hit. 

The drugs that cause someone to build up a tolerance quickly can also increase their risk of accidental overdose. A person could take a considerable amount of opioids and not get the high they want. So, they keep taking more hits of the drug. This can quickly lead to an accidental overdose when their central nervous system becomes overloaded with opioids.

What are the most dangerous prescription opioids?

Heroin is the world’s most dangerous opioid. But when it comes to prescription painkillers, the most dangerous drugs are:

  • Oxycodone and Oxycontin
  • Vicodin
  • Fentanyl

Fentanyl was initially used to treat severe pain in cancer patients. It is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is incredibly dangerous when misused.

What are the signs and symptoms of a prescription opioid overdose?

Unfortunately, the early stages of prescription opioid overdose look similar to how the drug initially impacts someone. People who are overdosing on opioids will become tired and disoriented, but there are other telltale signs that someone has taken too much of the medication:

  • Slowed, labored breathing
  • Pinprick pupils
  • Blue-tinged lips
  • Blue-tinged fingernails
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Coma
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Anytime someone takes more opioids at once than prescribed or takes their dose more frequently than prescribed, they are at risk of overdosing. Also, mixing opioids with another central nervous system depressant is incredibly dangerous. Alcohol and benzodiazepine drugs can magnify the dangerous effects of opioids.

What should someone do if they witness an opioid overdose?

In a suspected prescription opioid overdose, the victim mustn’t be left unattended. Witnesses should contact 911 immediately, and wait with the individual until EMTs arrive. If possible, try to keep the person awake and talking. If they are unconscious, it’s vital to have them lay on their side, and not on their back. With opioid overdoses, vomiting can occur while a person is unconscious. If the person is placed on their back, they could choke on their vomit and die. 

Witnesses to a suspected prescription opioid overdose are protected in most states by Good Samaritan Laws. These laws keep those who report a drug overdose free from prosecution for drug-related crimes.

What are the treatment options for opioid overdose?

It is possible to reverse a prescription opioid overdose with Naloxone. Because the opioid epidemic has become so widespread, many EMTs, firefighters, and some police officers carry forms of Naloxone for overdose calls. When administered, Naloxone can completely reverse the effects of opioids if delivered promptly. First responders will also take an overdose victim to the hospital for further evaluation and intervention. Depending on the severity of the overdose, a patient may need to stay in the hospital for several days before attending an inpatient or outpatient rehab program. 

When misused, prescription opioids are incredibly dangerous and addictive. If you or a loved one are struggling with opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms, there is help available. Please contact Mission Harbor Behavioral Health today. Our dedicated and supportive counselors are standing by to answer your questions about opioid addiction treatment.

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

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