What you can do about an opioid overdose

A response to the Opioid Crisis

Feb. 28, 2020

The opioid crisis started in the 90’s after a huge increase in doctors prescribing people drugs like oxycodone, codeine and morphine. This led to the current widespread and problematic opioid use, alongside something even more sinister. Nowadays, we’re seeing fentanyl, a very powerful opioid, being laced into weaker opioids and other drugs like Xanax, diazepam and midazolam. The opioid crisis has claimed the lives of celebrities like Prince, Mac Miller, Tom Petty, Lil Peep with millions more opioid overdoses around the world. So, what can you do?

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Get to know Naloxone

You may have heard about Narcan or Naloxone in the media and news. From articles asking what exactly is it1, stories of how it has saved people’s lives2, to debate about government policy3, and even in celebrity news4. Naloxone5 is a pharmaceutical drug used to temporarily reverse6 or reduce the effects of an opioid overdose. It’s most commonly an injection in the muscle or a nasal spray. The important thing to remember is that naloxone only works temporarily; after giving someone naloxone you still need to call an ambulance. Get clued up.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a type of medication typically used to reduce severe pain. Some examples7 include: morphine, codeine, heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone. Opioids come in different strengths, Fentanyl for example, is 50-100 times stronger than morphine8.

Opioids have a high potential for substance dependence, addiction, and overdose. Currently, due to the number of people dying or becoming injured due to opioid overdose, there is an international public health emergency known as the Opioid Crisis. Additionally, because of cross-contamination9, opioids are being found in the non-opioid illicit drug market, furthering the risk of injury or death in people who use substances other than opioids.

How can opioids cause overdose?

When a person takes too high a dose of opioids, or a hit of an opioid that is stronger than their tolerance, there is a potential to overdose (see more risk factors here). The main feature of an opioid overdose is the reduced ability to breathe, or even not being able to breathe at all.

Symptoms of an opioid overdose can include:

  • Slow or absent breathing. You may hear snoring or gurgling sounds - this isn’t proper breathing
  • Blue lips, pale or grey skin that is cold to touch
  • Tiredness, dizziness or
  • Eyeballs rolling back
  • No response to shouting
  • Limp body (although it can conversely be rigid in some cases)
  • No pain response

See here how to differentiate between someone who is very high from someone experiencing an overdose.

How to treat an opioid overdose

It is incredibly important to remember that Naloxone only takes over temporarily. Emergency services need to be contacted immediately because soon as Naloxone wears off, the person will start overdosing again. An overdose might also cause someone to stop breathing so it’s important to know Basic Life Support.

Remember, Naloxone is our tool to tackle the Opioid Crisis and save lives.

Get your Naloxone Kit here (UK only).


Remember, anyone can overdose

We need to be aware that an overdose can happen to anyone at any time. From someone taking opioids as prescribed by their doctor, to a partygoer unknowingly using a drug that has been contaminated. Therefore, learning about the actions you should take can potentially help save the lives of the people we love. Read Drugs and Me’s latest guide about overdose here.

All drugs pose risks, and the best way to avoid them is not to take any, but we understand that people still choose to. Drugs and Me exists to provide you with information about drugs, helping to reduce their harms based on the best evidence available.

Drugs and Me is powered by the Alcohol and other Drugs Education Consultancy, to be objective, unbiased, and freely accessible. Our work is fuelled by volunteers and we’ve chosen to not have any ads, so we rely heavily on your support. Why not become a patron today, or if you prefer, make a one-off donation. If you like this post, please share it on social media using the buttons below!

Stay safe

This post was written by Dylan, our medical guru. Dylan is a nurse in Canada specialised in mental health and drug harms.


References

  1. Menato F. Everything You Need To Know About Narcan & Demi Lovato's 'Overdose' [Internet]. Women's Health. 2018 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/health/conditions/a708775/what-is-narcan/
  2. Life-saving drug' reverses 98 overdoses [Internet]. BBC News. 2017 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-40705426
  3. Ailes E. 'Heroin antidote saved my life' [Internet]. BBC News. 2016 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37519302
  4. Scaccia A, Scaccia A. Naloxone: How Overdose-Reversing Drug Saved Demi Lovato, Thousands More [Internet]. Rolling Stone. 2018 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/naloxone-how-overdose-reversing-drug-saved-demi-lovato-thousands-more-707518/
  5. 'How to use naloxone: learn how to recognise and respond to an opioid overdose. [Internet] Toward the Heart. Available at: https://towardtheheart.com/opioid-od-awareness
  6. Understanding Naloxone - Harm Reduction Coalition [Internet]. Harm Reduction Coalition. 2020 [cited 5 February 2020]. Available from: https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/understanding-naloxone/
  7. Real Teens Ask: What Are the Different Types of Opioids? [Internet]. NIDA for Teens. [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-what-are-different-types-opioids-0
  8. 'See how deadly street opioids like 'elephant tranquilliser' have become.' [Internet] The Washington Post. 2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/health/opioids-scale/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f849c55e244b
  9. Canada H. Fentanyl - Canada.ca [Internet]. Canada.ca. [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/controlled-illegal-drugs/fentanyl.html
  10. Canada S. Canada’s opioid crisis - Canada.ca [Internet]. Canada.ca. [cited 4 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/health/campaigns/drug-prevention.html?utm_campaign=opioids&utm_medium=vurl&utm_source=canada-ca-opioids
  11. Naloxone [Internet]. Bristol Drugs Project. 2020 [cited 19 November 2019]. Available from: https://www.bdp.org.uk/naloxone
  12. Perform Rescue Breathing or Chest Compressions - Harm Reduction Coalition [Internet]. Harm Reduction Coalition. 2020 [cited 4 December 2019]. Available from: https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/responding-to-opioid-overdose/perform-rescue-breathing/
  13. Recognizing Opioid Overdose - Harm Reduction Coalition [Internet]. Harm Reduction Coalition. [cited 28 November 2019]. Available from: https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/recognizing-opioid-overdose/
  14. Responding to Opioid Overdose - Harm Reduction Coalition [Internet]. Harm Reduction Coalition. 2020 [cited 31 November 2019]. Available from: https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/responding-to-opioid-overdose/
  15. Services A. Opioids | Alberta Health Services [Internet]. Alberta Health Services. 2020 [cited 4 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/info/Page16025.aspx
  16. Stannard C. Opioid prescribing in the UK: can we avert a public health disaster?. British Journal of Pain [Internet]. 2012;6(1):7-8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590089/
  17. Understanding Naloxone - Harm Reduction Coalition [Internet]. Harm Reduction Coalition. [cited 28 November 2019]. Available from: https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/understanding-naloxone/
  18. What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic? [Internet]. HHS.gov. [cited 28 December 2019]. Available from: https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html
  19. Canada H. Fentanyl - Canada.ca [Internet]. Canada.ca. [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/controlled-illegal-drugs/fentanyl.html
  20. History of the Opioid Epidemic [Internet]. Poison.org. [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.poison.org/articles/opioid-epidemic-history-and-prescribing-patterns-182
  21. Kale S. 'It's a war zone': why is a generation of rappers dying young? [Internet]. the Guardian. 2020 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/31/war-zone-music-industry-confronts-a-generation-of-rappers-dying-young
  22. Naloxone [Internet]. DrugWise. [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.drugwise.org.uk/naloxone/
  23. Prescription Opioids [Internet]. Drugabuse.gov. 2018 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-opioids
  24. Fentanyl Abuse: Top 11 Facts About This Potent and Deadly Opioid [Internet]. Drugs.com. 2019 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.drugs.com/illicit/fentanyl.html
  25. Gostin L, Hodge J, Noe S. Reframing the Opioid Epidemic as a National Emergency. JAMA [Internet]. 2017;318(16):1539. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2652445
  26. Opioid Overdose Crisis [Internet]. Drugabuse.gov. 2020 [cited 28 February 2020]. Available from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis

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