As of 2020, the number of drug-involved overdose deaths reached an all-time high of 91,799, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. At least 74.8% of those deaths involved opioids, 14% involved heroin, 26% involved psychostimulants, primarily methamphetamine, and 21% involved cocaine. However, overdose deaths depend on a myriad of factors including the type of substance abused, the health of the person, and more.
When someone dies from a drug overdose, it’s essential to determine whether it was intentional or accidental. An intentional drug overdose was purposely self-inflicted, as in cases of suicide. Unintentional drug poisoning can happen when:
- Someone takes too much of a drug accidentally;
- A drug was taken accidentally;
- The wrong medication was given or taken by mistake;
- Or a reaction occurred in the use of a drug.
Common Drugs People Overdose On
Many accidental drug overdoses are classified as “unintentional” deaths, meaning they weren’t people’s intended outcomes—they were accidents. Some of the most commonly misused substances include heroin, methamphetamines, and prescription painkillers—all of which can be deadly when abused.
1. Prescription Opioids
Despite efforts by the government to better control prescription opioids, national overdose deaths involving prescription opioids continue to increase, particularly when we are talking about synthetic opioids. As of 2020, at least 16,416 people died of a prescription opioid overdose.
Many people start using prescription opioids after surgery or to treat chronic pain. However, these medications are intended for short-term use only due to their potential for addiction. Over time, people might combine these drugs with other substances, such as alcohol or other drugs, to increase their effects. As a result, they can fall victim to an accidental opioid overdose.
2. Synthetic Opioids
Fentanyl, a type of synthetic opioid, accounted for 53,480 preventable deaths in 2020. By 2021, at least 66% of deaths attributed to opioids involved fentanyl, according to the CDC. Synthetic opioids are highly addictive as they’re 50 times stronger than heroin and almost 100 times stronger than morphine. Due to its potency, it’s relatively easy to accidentally overdose on fentanyl if someone is not extra careful. In addition, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are often sourced from the streets, where they could be mixed with other substances to increase their effects. Because of this, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids can be deadly even in small doses.
While overdose deaths from psychostimulants are not as common as those from opioids, stimulants cause significant yearly fatalities. Stimulants like ecstasy, Adderall, and methamphetamines can lead to heart problems, stroke, seizures, and other serious health conditions. They can also cause paranoia or hallucinations, making it difficult for users to recognize their symptoms or call for help when needed.
Unfortunately, overdose deaths involving psychostimulants continue to increase year after year. By 2020, there were at least 23,837 psychostimulant overdose deaths. Because these drugs are often used in combination with alcohol or other drugs (including prescription medications), fatal overdoses may occur due to synergistic effects between substances – when one drug enhances the effect of another – making overdoses more likely than they would be if the user had only taken one substance at a time.
The number of overdose deaths involving cocaine has been increasing steadily since 2013. By 2020, there were nearly 19,500 overdose deaths involving cocaine; a vast majority also involved other synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl). Because the effects of cocaine are short-lived, it increases people’s likelihood of accidentally overdosing, especially when combined with other drugs like opioids or alcohol. Cocaine is involved in nearly 1 of 5 overdose deaths, according to the CDC.
Benzodiazepines or antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft can often lead to overdose. However, experiencing an overdose of benzodiazepines alone is rare. In most cases, accidental benzodiazepine overdoses occur with the combination of other substances, particularly other depressants such as alcohol and opioids.
In fact, according to the CDC, polysubstance drug use has increased significantly since 2016. Almost 80% of synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths involved benzodiazepines, alcohol, and other antidepressant medications.
The Right Treatments for Drug Overdose
When treating an accidental overdose, the first thing to do is call 911. The person who has overdosed may be unconscious or confused, and they will need medical attention right away. At the hospital, doctors will try to determine what drug was taken in excess and how fast it was taken—both of these factors can affect how quickly treatment needs to start.
In most cases of overdose with prescription medications or street drugs, naloxone is given until emergency services arrive at the location—and then you’re moved into the ICU for observation. The treatment for intentional overdoses is similar: emergency services are called, and naloxone is administered until emergency services arrive on scene; then, you’re moved into ICU for observation so that doctors can monitor your condition closely.
Be wary of drug overdose treatment at home. Do not try to give the person overdosing any additional substances or medication; this could make things worse. If you have naloxone available, administer it following the instructions. If you don’t, place the person in a fetal position on their side to prevent suffocation by vomit aspiration. Do your best to keep them awake, and contact emergency services immediately.
Once medical professionals arrive at the scene, give them all the information you can gather, including the type of substance abused.
Finding Help For Drug Abuse
If you or someone you know has suffered an accidental drug overdose, consider finding help for addiction. Talking to an addiction specialist can help you find the right treatment plan to overcome addiction and find long-lasting recovery. Learn more about medical detox services and residential treatment for addiction recovery and start your path to sobriety.