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U.S. drug overdose deaths rose nearly 30% in 2020, driven by synthetic opioids.  It’s about isolation, interruption in life, and maybe worsening of mental disorders due to the spread of (primarily illicitly produced) Fentanyl, along with lockdowns, job losses, and stress from the Covid-19 pandemic.  Fentanyl is 50 times more influential than heroin, and it is now often blended into other widely used illegal drugs, usually when the user is negligent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths.  The estimation of over 93,000 interprets to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 deaths every hour.

Overdose Deaths
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The measured 93,331 deaths from drug overdoses last year, a record high, represent the sharpest yearly increase in at least three decades; and compare with a harsh toll of 72,151 deaths in 2019, according to provisional overdose-drug data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  [1]

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What is Drug Overdose?

Overdose might occur unintentionally for several reasons, such as: 

  • Taking a regular dose after tolerance has dropped (it mostly happen after a detox or withdrawal)
  • Taking a more potent dose than the body is accustomed to 
  • Mixing substances of abuse

While some people do overdose intentionally, most overdoses are unintended.  Overdose is a medical emergency, and immediate medical attention can help prevent death or lasting health outcomes.

Some general indications associated with numerous overdose states include severe chest pain, seizures, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, delirium, extreme agitation, or anxiety.

In addition to these symptoms of a drug overdose (including alcohol poisoning), other signs may include:

  • Deviations from average body temperature (hyperthermia/hypothermia)
  • Passing out or an unresponsive loss of consciousness
  • Skin color changes (paleness or bluish tint to skin if a respiratory depressant was used; ruddy or flushed after cardiovascular overstimulation)
  • Fast, slowed, or irregular pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of balance
  • Being unresponsive but awake
  • Limp body
  • Slow or erratic pulse
  • Difficulty breathing, shallow or erratic breathing, or not breathing at all
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Severe stomach pain abdominal cramps

In the context of illegal substance use, it is difficult for individuals to know exactly how much of a drug they are injecting, snorting, smoking, or taking orally.  And, the danger of overdose may be severe when intravenous drug use is at play.

Substances that people may overdose on include:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter (non-prescription) medications
  • Illegal drugs

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Acceleration of Overdose Deaths

The latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.  Overdose deaths involving cocaine also increased by 26.5 percent.  These deaths link to co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured Fentanyl or heroin based on early research.  Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased by 34.8 percent.  The number of fatalities involving psychostimulants now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths.  [1]

  • Opioid-involved overdose deaths rose from 21,088 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017 and remained steady in 2018 with 46,802 deaths.  A significant increase in 2019 to 49,860 overdose deaths followed.
  • U.S. overdose deaths involving psychostimulants with abuse potential from 1999 to 2019.  Overdose deaths rose from 547 in 1999 to 16,167 in 2019.
  • Drug overdose deaths involving cocaine rose from 3,822 in 1999 to 15,883 in 2019.
  • Drug overdose deaths involving antidepressants have risen steadily from 1,749 in 1999 to 5,269 in 2017.  Since then, deaths had remained steady at 5,175 in 2019.
  • There were 70,630 drug-involved overdose deaths reported in the U.S. in 2019.  68% of cases occurred among males.  [2]  Men are more likely to misuse multiple drugs than women.

Most of these deaths are preventable, but the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the decades-long drug war and the stigma connected with drug use have hindered the general adoption of life-saving overdose prevention and treatment plans.

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Reasons for Overdose

Anyone, at any age or time, can overdose from drugs or alcohol. Even “stable” substance use can press a fatal overdose.

  • Accidental:  If a person takes the wrong substance or combination of importance in the wrong amount or at the wrong time without understanding that it could cause them harm
  • Intentional:  A person takes an overdose to get ‘high’ or inflict self-harm (which may be a call for help or a suicide attempt)

Preventing Overdose Deaths

Some Ways To Avoid Overdose

  • Always read medication labels carefully.  Take prescription medications only as instructed. Keep all medicines in their primary packaging.
  • Avoid drugs of any kind unless prescribed by a doctor.
  • Always tell your doctor or another health professional if you have had an overdose before.
  • Do not keep medications you no longer need.
  • Keep all medicines, alcohol, drugs, and poisons locked away in a safe, protected place and out of reach of children.
  • Be careful when taking various substances (including alcohol) at the same time.  They can interact negatively and increase your risk of overdose.
  • Above all, Intervene early with individuals at the highest risk for overdose.  Not all overdoses have to end in death.  Everyone has a role to play.

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Overdose Deaths
Seek out help before it is too late

If you think someone may have taken an overdose but do not show any symptoms and seem OK, you may contact us for advice on what to do.  An overdose can still be an emergency, even if the person seems OK at first.  Seeking out help to avoid overdose deaths will also help decrease drug addiction.

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Sources:

[1] Overdose Deaths Accelerating During COVID-19 – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
[2] Overdose Death Rates – National Institute on Drug Abuse