Provide Education to Help Prevent Drug Overdoses


Medication misuse can cause many health issues, including death, but knowledge and proper treatment can reduce these tragic occurrences.

Many Americans and those in other developed countries take medications for a variety of medical ailments, conditions, or disease states.1

Although the goal of most drug therapies is to alleviate a condition or improve quality of life, some drugs have the potential to damage organs or organ systems if taken beyond the recommended daily amount or otherwise inappropriately. Misusing medications can lead to other adverse outcomes, including overdoses.2

A drug overdose is generally described as a condition that is characterized by the excessive consumption of a particular drug that can either cause a mild adverse effect, brain damage, coma, permanent physical damage, or even death. Drug overdoses are poorly understood as a public health issue.3 The symptoms of a drug overdose can vary depending on the type of medication taken, as well as the amount. The abuse and/or misuse of occurs with both OTC and prescriptions drugs. Prescription drugs are associated with a larger percentage of overdose deaths, with the most common classes including antidepressants, depressants, narcotics, and opioids.4,5 The immediate identification and treatment of a drug overdose can be a determining factor between life and death. Most drugs have the potential to produce both therapeutic or toxic outcomes, but recognizing high-alert drugs that commonly cause overdoses is critical to promoting prevention.

More than 70,000 Americans died from drug-related overdoses in 2019, which includes the use of prescription opioids and illicit drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.6

The symptoms of a drug overdose can be difficult to recognize without knowing whether an individual has ingested a particular drug within a specified timeframe that can produce severe or deadly effects.7 The most common signs or symptoms of a drug overdose include abdominal pain, chest pain, diarrhea, dizziness, drowsiness, irregular heartbeat, nausea, and vomiting.8 It is critical that a comprehensive assessment be performed to provide expedited treatment for a suspected overdose.

Drug overdoses can be classified as accidental or intentional. With an overdose, increased levels of certain medications can be detected in the blood, such as acetaminophen or others that have a narrow window between therapeutic and toxic effects.9 Use of medications to obtain an effect beyond those associated with regular use can be a red flag.

Deciding whether an overdose has occurred may include determining the amount of medication taken, observing symptoms, and performing a physical examination. Treatment for a drug depends on the medication taken. Immediate action may be necessary to remove the drug from the body and prevent death. Stomach-pumping may be required to remove a medication that has not been absorbed. Activated charcoal is commonly used to reduce the amount absorbed into the system.10 Another drug called a cathartic may be used to remove a medication by inducing expulsion from the bowels or via vomiting. The goal is to remove the offending agent from the system to return an individual to his or her condition prior to ingesting the drug.

The number of fatal drug overdoses continues to rise, but it is through immediate identification of the signs and symptoms that death can be avoided.11 Knowledge about what constitutes a drug overdose and getting proper treatment can help reduce these tragic occurrences. It is only through continuous monitoring of administration patterns and ingestion, as well as providing safe supplies that the number of drug overdoses can be dramatically reduced.12

Abimbola Farinde, PharmD, is a pharmacist at Cornerstone Hospital in Webster, Texas.


  • Katzung B. Medical conditions and their commonly used drugs. eMedExpert.Updated November 17, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • American Addiction Centers. Updated February 4, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021. How can the nervous system be affected by prolonged substance abuse?
  • Martins SS, Sampson L, Cerdá M, Galea S. Worldwide prevalence and trends in unintentional drug overdose: a systematic review of the literature. Am J Public Health. 2015;105(11):e29-49. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302843
  • United Behavioral Health. Prescription drugs responsible for more deaths than illicit drugs. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Mayo Clinic. How to use opioids safely. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. Overdose death rates. January 21, 2021. Accessed February 8, 2021.,%20drug%20overdose%20deaths%20rose%20from%202018%20to,more%20than%2036,359%20overdose%20deaths%20reported%20in%202019
  • Thomas S. Overdose. American Addiction Centers. Updated September 28, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Farinde A. How can we slow the rate of drug overdose? Multibriefs: Exclusive. February 24, 2014. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. Intentional vs. unintentional overdose deaths. February 13, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • King L. Activated charcoal can interfere with medication and cause dehydration, experts say. Bustle. November 12, 2019. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Fox M. Drug overdoses spur rise in accidental deaths, says report. NBC News. June 17, 2015. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Culbert L. Can we reduce drug overdose deaths in the middle of a Covid pandemic? Vancouver Sun. November 14, 2020. Accessed February 9, 2021.

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