The effects of any drug will vary depending on the nature of the substance, the age, weight and general health of the patient, and whether any alcohol was consumed at the same time.
Many young people are exposed to the risks of taking a ‘recreational drug’ at a party or entertainment venue, often without knowing the nature of the substance concerned. Sometimes a cocktail of drugs may be taken in the hope of enjoying a ‘high’, but this can prove to be a fatal step and seriously complicates the medical treatment required. The first aider is unable to give any specific treatment for the patient of drug abuse and can only give care following the normal priorities of basic life support.
Drug Overdose Causes
The cause of a drug overdose is either by accidental overuse or by intentional misuse. Accidental overdoses result from either a young child or an adult with impaired mental abilities swallowing a medication left within their grasp. An adult (especially elderly persons or people taking many medications) can mistakenly ingest the incorrect medication or take the wrong dose of a medication. Purposeful overdoses are for a desired effect, either to get high or to harm oneself.
- Young children may swallow drugs by accident because of their curiosity about medications they may find. Children younger than 5 years (especially 6 months to 3 years) tend to place everything they find into their mouths. Drug overdoses in this age group are generally caused when someone accidentally leaves a medication within the child's reach. Toddlers, when they find medications, often share them with other children. Therefore, if you suspect an overdose in one child while other children are around, those other children may have taken the medication too.
- Adolescents and adults are more likely to overdose on one or more drugs in order to harm themselves. Attempting to harm oneself may represent a suicide attempt. People who purposefully overdose on medications frequently suffer from underlying mental health conditions. These conditions may or may not have been diagnosed before.
Drug Overdose Symptoms
Drugs have effects on the entire body. Generally, in an overdose, the effects of the drug may be a heightened level of the therapeutic effects seen with regular use. In overdose, side effects become more pronounced, and other effects can take place, which would not occur with normal use. Large overdoses of some medications cause only minimal effects, while smaller overdoses of other medications can cause severe effects, possibly death. A single dose of some medications can be lethal to a young child. Some overdoses may worsen a person's chronic disease. For example, an asthma attack or chest pains may be triggered.
- Problems with vital signs (temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure) are possible and can be life threatening. Vital sign values can be increased, decreased, or completely absent.
- Sleepiness, confusion, and coma are common and can be dangerous if the person breathes vomit into the lungs (aspirated).
- Skin can be cool and sweaty, or hot and dry.
- Chest pain is possible and can be caused by heart or lung damage. Shortness of breath may occur. Breathing may get rapid, slow, deep, or shallow.
- Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are possible. Vomiting blood, or blood in bowel movements, can be life threatening.
- Specific drugs can damage specific organs, depending on the drug. Continue Reading
How you can help
1. Assess the patient
- Check the level of consciousness. If the patient is not fully conscious and alert, turn them onto their side and ensure they are not left alone.
2. Reassure the patient
- Talk to the patient in a quiet and reassuring manner.
- Sometimes patients may become agitated. Enlist friends or family to calm and reassure the patient. Consider calling the police if the safety of the patient or others becomes threatened.
3. Identify the drug taken
- Ask what the patient has taken, how much was taken, when it was taken, and whether it was swallowed, inhaled or injected.
- Look for evidence that might assist the hospital staff with treatment and keep any container, syringe or needle and any vomit to aid analysis and identification.
Some drugs create serious overheating of the body, and if this is noticed, remove unnecessary clothing to allow air to reach the skin surface to assist with cooling.
Drug Overdose Treatment:
Treatment will be dictated by the specific drug taken in the overdose. Information provided about amount, time, and underlying medical problems will be very helpful.
- The stomach may be washed out by gastric lavage (stomach pumping) to mechanically remove unabsorbed drugs from the stomach.
- Activated charcoal may be given to help bind drugs and keep them in the stomach and intestines. This reduces the amount absorbed into the blood. The drug, bound to the charcoal, is then expelled in the stool. Often, a cathartic is given with the charcoal so that the person more quickly evacuates stool from his or her bowels.
- Agitated or violent people need physical restraint and sometimes sedating medications in the emergency department until the effects of the drugs wear off. This can be disturbing for a person to experience and for family members to witness. Medical professionals go to great lengths to use only as much force and as much medication as necessary. It is important to remember that whatever the medical staff does, it is to protect the person they are treating. Sometimes the person has to be intubated (have a tube placed in the airway) so that the doctor can protect the lungs or help the person breathe during the detoxification process.
- For certain overdoses, other medicine may need to be given either to serve as an antidote to reverse the effects of what was taken or to prevent even more harm from the drug that was initially taken. The doctor will decide if treatment needs to include additional medicines
Self-Care at Home:
Home care should not be done without first consulting a doctor or poison expert.
For some accidental drug overdoses, the local poison control center may recommend home therapy and observation. Because of the potential for problems after some overdoses, syrup of ipecac or other therapies should not be given unless directed by a medical professional.
- Most people have telephone access to a local poison control center. Locate the closest one to you through the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
- Anyone who has small children at home should have the "poison line" telephone number readily available near the telephone.
- People who take a drug overdose in an attempt to harm themselves generally require psychiatric intervention in addition to poison management. People who overdose for this purpose must be taken to a hospital's Emergency Department, even if their overdose seems trivial. These people are at risk for eventually achieving a successful suicide. The sooner you intervene, the better the success of avoiding suicide.