emergency / overdose

An overdose happens when the body is overwhelmed by a drug or poison. A toxic effect occurs once the body can no longer process the amount of drug or chemical being put into it. Though the body can heal itself, sometimes death or permanent organ damage can instantly occur. 

Alcohol Poisoning/Overdose 

Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone has consumed more alcohol than their body can safely metabolize. Warning Signs include: 

  • Won't wake up
  • Vomiting while passed out
  • Slow/irregular breathing
  • Pale skin
  • Extreme confusion

What Happens to Your Body When You Get Alcohol Poisoning? 

Alcohol depresses nerves that control involuntary actions such as breathing and the gag reflex (which prevents choking). A fatal dose of alcohol will eventually stop these functions. It is common for someone who drank excessive alcohol to vomit since alcohol is an irritant to the stomach. There is then the danger of choking on vomit, which could cause death by asphyxiation in a person who is not conscious because of intoxication. You should also know that a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can continue to rise even while he or she is passed out. Even after a person stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. It is dangerous to assume the person will be fine by sleeping it off. 

overdose recovery position

What should I do if I suspect someone has alcohol poisoning

  • Know the danger signals 
  • Do not wait for all symptoms to be present 
  • Be aware that a person who has passed out may die 
  • If there is any suspicion of an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help (don't try to guess the level of drunkenness) 
  • If they appear unresponsive, place them in a recovery position (as shown) and immediately call 911. 

critical signs/symptoms of alcohol poisoning

  • Mental confusion, stupor, coma, or person cannot be roused 
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures 
  • Slow breathing (< 8 breaths/min) 
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths) 
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature, bluish skin color, paleness) 

what can Happen to Someone with Alcohol Poisoning that goes untreated?

  • Victim chokes on his or her own vomit 
  • Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops 
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature) 
  • Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures 
  • Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death
  • Even if the victim lives, an alcohol overdose can lead to irreversible brain damage 

Rapid binge drinking (drinking games, chugging, doing shots) is especially risky because the victim can ingest a fatal dose before becoming unconscious. Don't be afraid to seek medical help for a friend who has had too much to drink. Don't worry that your friend may become angry or embarrassed - remember, you cared enough to help. Always be safe and look out for one another. 

Drug Overdose

What role dose tolerance play in overdoses? 

The leading component of an overdose is a person's tolerance level. When someone has been using and/or abusing a particular drug for a prolonged period of time, their tolerance level rises to an unsustainable point. Over time, they need to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect.

Another little known fact, but potentially deadly, aspect of drug tolerance lies in a person who hasn't taken drugs for a long period of time. In this case, their tolerance drops, which can be deadly if they decide to use again and end up taking the same amount of drugs they used before they stopped. 

A person's overdose tolerance level varies with age, weight, state of health, and how the drug was consumed, among other factors. The overdose occurs once the body has reached the limit of what it can take. 

Signs that a person is overdosing 

Signs of a drug overdose vary depending on the substance the user ingested. While many symptoms are the same across the board, it's important to be able to recognize what is going on in order to initiate the proper response. It's not always obvious when someone is overdosing. In many cases, such as opioid pain relievers and heroin, the effects of the drug can look a lot like an overdose.  

A common misconception is that a person has to be obviously unconscious or in severe distress to have an overdose, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes, the person is so heavily under the influence of the drug that they aren't even aware an overdose is happening.  

In addition to a person being unconscious, there are several other signals of an overdose: 

  • They are having a seizure 
  • They are experiencing severe head pain 
  • They are experiencing severe chest pain
  • They are having difficulty breathing 
  • They are extremely agitated, anxious, confused, or delirious 

Warning Signs Include:

Won't Wake Up: 

If the person is unresponsive, try nudging them or gently pinching their arm. Whether using stimulants or depressants, if someone passes out and will not wake up, it is a warning sign for drug overdose.

Pale Skin Color

Stimulants make skin flushed. Depressants make skin pale. If the person's skin is flushed, reddish OR looks paler than usual, they have bluish lips or sweaty/cool skin, it is a warning sign for drug overdose. 

Abnormal Temperature

Stimulants increase temperature. Depressants (alcohol) decrease temperature. If the person's skin feels very warm to the touch or they are sweating profusely in otherwise normal conditions or feels cool to the touch in otherwise normal conditions, it is a warning sign for drug overdose.


Abnormal Breathing

Stimulants (cocaine, Aderall) speed up breathing. Depressants slow down breathing. If the person is breathing faster than usual, they seem to be short of breath OR have less than 13 breaths per minute or more than 8 seconds between breaths is considered slow breathing. 

Abnormal Pulse

Stimulants increase pulse. A person overdosing on a stimulant may report a racing heart of chest pains. Depressants decrease pulse. Place the tips of your index and second fingers on their lower neck, on either side of their windpipe. Count the beats for 10 seconds and multiply this number by 6. If lower than 60, it's  a warning sign for drug overdose.

All of these are warning signs for drug overdose - Call 911.

It's also important to remember that it isn't necessary for someone to be showing every symptom listed to be overdosing. Exhibiting a few symptoms, or even one, such as difficulty breathing, could be sign of an overdose. There's no rulebook for handling someone who's overdosing. It's a nerve wracking and harrowing experience for everyone involved. Fortunately, there are actions you can take to help mitigate the damage. 

Here are the steps you should take if you suspect someone is overdosing: 

  • Stay by their side and keep talking to them 
  • Assure them that they'll be okay
  • If they are unconscious, speak directly to them and try to get a response in return (ex. ask them what their name is) 
  • If they appear unresponsive, place them in a recovery position (as shown) and immediately call 911. 

Commence first aid and follow the instructions of the 911 operator: 

  • Don't give them anything to eat
  • Don't give them anything to drink
  • Don't try to make them throw up
  • Don't leave the room 

Overdose Recovery Position

If the person is feeling hot or cold, try adjusting the temperature in the room. Recognizing the symptoms and knowing what to do is helpful when put into the context of whatever drug the person has overdosed on. Different drugs exhibit different symptoms.