An overdose occurs when the body is overwhelmed by a toxic amount of one or more drugs. A toxic amount is difficult to measure because each person’s individual reaction to drugs can vary significantly. It is really only when the damage is done and a person overdoses that the toxic amount is determined.

How Overdose Happens

The cause of an overdose is either accidental overuse of a prescribed or over-the-counter drug or the misuse of a drug for recreational purposes. Accidental overdoses typically happen when a young child or an adult struggling with mental illness or reduced cognitive abilities ingests medication that was not meant for them or uses more than the prescribed dose of their own medication. Because seniors typically have multiple medicines, it’s easy for them to take the wrong medicine or take the wrong amount of medicine, resulting in accidental overdose.

Overdoses that happen as a result of recreational drug use are also often accidental. The person abusing the drugs needs more of the substance to achieve the same level of experience and the amount taken overwhelms the brain and body. People struggling with substance abuse also combine drugs for a different experience which can result in accidental overdose. Intentional overdose happens when a person knowingly takes too much of a drug in order to end his or her life.1

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Overdose Statistics

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their analysis of drug overdose rates between 2015 and 2016 showed the following:

    Heroin overdose deaths increased significantly from 2002 to 2013, which has caused supervised injection facilities to be on the rise.
  • Across demographic categories, the largest increase in opioid overdose death rates was in males between the ages of 25-44.
  • Overall drug overdose death rates increased by 21.5 percent.
  • The overdose death rate from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) more than doubled, likely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF).
  • The prescription opioid-related overdose death rate increased by 10.6 percent.
  • The heroin-related overdose death rate increased by 19.5 percent.
  • The cocaine-related overdose death rate increased by 52.4 percent.
  • The psychostimulant-related overdose death rate increased by 33.3 percent.
  • IMF is mixed into counterfeit opioid and benzodiazepine pills, heroin, and cocaine, likely contributing to increases in overdoses involving these other substances.


The analysis also showed that overdose death rates differ by state in the following ways:
  • Death rates from overdoses involving synthetic opioids increased in 21 states, with 10 states doubling their rates from 2015 to 2016.
  • New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Massachusetts had the highest death rates from synthetic opioids.
  • Fourteen states had significant increases in death rates involving heroin, with Washington D.C., West Virginia, and Ohio having the highest rates.
  • Eight states had significant increases in death rates involving prescription opioids. West Virginia, Maryland, Maine, and Utah had the highest rates.
  • Sixteen states had significant increases in death rates involving cocaine, with Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and Ohio having the highest rates.
  • Fourteen states had significant increases in death rates involving psychostimulants; the highest death rates occurred primarily in the Midwest and Western regions.2


Overdose and Brain Damage

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids attach to opioid receptors found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and other organs in the body.3 When opioids attach to these receptors they change how the brain and body perceives pain. They also produce feelings of euphoria in the user and slow essential functions like heart rate and breathing.

Basically, opioids depress the central nervous system to the point where the body forgets to breath resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain. This can cause irreversible brain damage, coma and death.4 With stimulants, such as cocaine, the central nervous system accelerates breathing, which increases the heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. These variables can contribute to a seizure, stroke, heart attack or death.

Overdose Risks

The factors that increase a person’s risk for overdose include the following:


A person’s height, weight, strength of the immune system, age and duration of drug usage all impact tolerance level.

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Combining stimulants with stimulants exacerbate the impacts of the drugs.


The content and purity of street drugs is an unknown, so every time you use a street drug you have no idea how your body will react.

Being Alone+

A person using drugs alone is at greater risk as no one can intervene.

When any of these individual risk factors are combined, the risk of drug overdose is dramatically increased.

Finding Help after an Overdose

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, the danger of overdose is real. Getting treatment for addiction is the only way to prevent brain damage and even death. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day at 706-914-2327. Our admissions coordinators are ready to answer your questions and help you find treatment.


1 Drug Overdose.” WebMD, WebMD. Accessed Aug. 29, 2018.

2 CDC Newsroom: U.S. drug overdose deaths continue to rise; increase fueled by synthetic opioids.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Mar. 2018.

3 What Are Prescription Opioids?National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA, 7 June 2018.

4 Epley, Tiffany, et al. “The Solution to Opioids Is Treatment.” Brain Injury Association of America, Aug. 2018.