Drug overdose rates among teenagers are rising, and the consequences can be deadly. Teens who misuse drugs or alcohol just one time are at risk for an overdose. Getting proper treatment for drug and alcohol abuse or addiction can help prevent an overdose. An overdose is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical attention. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that drug overdose rates are on the rise among teens. In August 2017, the CDC released data showing that drug overdose deaths among teenagers aged 15 to 19 years old had increased by 19 percent between 2014 and 2015. Most of the deaths were accidental. And opioids — specifically heroin — were responsible for the highest death rates. Also, while most forms of tobacco (nicotine) use continued to decline in 2017, according to a nationwide survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, marijuana use showed a 1.3 percent increase. The prevalence of marijuana vaping, in particular, was considerable. Drug use and misuse can have both short- and long-term effects. And an overdose can occur after using drugs and alcohol just once. A drug overdose is a medical emergency. If you witness or suspect an overdose, immediately call 911.
What Is an Overdose?An overdose happens when you take more than the normal or recommended amount of a substance. This serious and sometimes life-threatening occurrence involves the misuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications and illegal drugs. The improper use of these substances can be intentional or unintentional. When it’s intentional, it is referred to as a deliberate overdose. This is often done to harm oneself or commit suicide. An overdose that happens unintentionally is called an accidental overdose.
Overdose vs. PoisoningAn overdose differs from poisoning. Poisoning can cause a lot of the same symptoms as an overdose, including death. But the primary difference between the two is that poisoning is exposure to a dangerous or harmful substance that happens without a person’s knowledge. An example would be the exposure to fentanyl or another potent substance when responding to a drug-related emergency call.
Why Is It Called Alcohol “Poisoning”?Consuming too much alcohol is often referred to as alcohol poisoning, which can be misleading. Binge drinking — consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time — that results in alcohol poisoning is actually a severe form of alcohol overdose. Alcohol overdose occurs when alcohol reaches toxic levels in the bloodstream. In other words, your body is being poisoned — hence the term “alcohol poisoning.”
What Causes an Overdose?When the body cannot metabolize a substance fast enough, it leads to an overdose or intoxication. Metabolism refers to the body’s chemical processes that occur in order to maintain life. When a person consumes a substance, the body gets to work breaking down and converting that substance into energy it needs to function. Most metabolic processes involving drugs and alcohol take place in the liver. Not only does the liver play an important role in breaking down nutrients and carrying out other necessary functions for survival, but it also helps the body rid itself of toxins. These toxins are often fat soluble, which means they can only dissolve in fatty or oily solutions and not water. The liver, therefore, has to convert these toxins into water soluble substances so they can leave the body through the kidneys, the bowels or the skin. But when the liver is flooded with too much of a substance that it cannot change fast enough, an overdose happens.
Risk Factors of an OverdoseAn overdose can happen to anyone. You don’t have to be a regular substance user or have an addiction to suffer from an overdose. You can overdose on a substance after just one time of using, especially if you take more than one drug at a time, mix drugs with alcohol or your body is not used to a certain substance. Some people, though, may be more vulnerable than others to a potential overdose. Mental illness, gender, age, and drug tolerance or addiction, as well as factors such as self-image, self-control, and social competence, can all influence a person’s likelihood of overdose.
Tolerance vs. Dependence vs. AddictionTolerance refers to the effect a drug or other substance has a person. Over time, drugs or alcohol may lose their effect on an individual. The person may not experience the same relief or “high” that they initially experienced from the substance. This happens because the brain adapts to the presence of that substance in the body. A person may begin taking more and more of the substance, or mixing it with other substances, to achieve the same feeling. With repeated exposure, the brain cells will undergo significant changes. This is when tolerance shifts to dependence. When a person is dependent on drugs or alcohol, they can no longer function normally without the substance they have built up a tolerance to. Stopping the substance can lead to unwanted or sometimes dangerous symptoms. This is called withdrawal syndrome. Dependence often leads to addiction or a compulsive use of the substance. A person with an addiction will seek the substance they are addicted to at all costs. Although tolerance, dependence, and addiction all work on different parts of the brain, they can all lead to an overdose. Any one of these conditions can result in a person using the substance more often than needed and in larger than recommended doses, thereby putting themselves at an increased risk of an overdose And, of course, you don’t have to have a disorder at all to overdose on drugs or alcohol. Substance use is risky regardless of your experience with drugs or alcohol because so many factors contribute to the body’s reaction to them.
Types of OverdoseIt is possible to overdose on both prescription and over-the-counter medications, alcohol, or illicit drugs. It is a common misconception that prescription drug misuse is safer than misusing street drugs, such as cocaine or ecstasy. But abusing any type of medication, prescription or otherwise, can be dangerous and life-threatening. Substances most commonly abused by teenagers and young adults include:
Underage Drinking and Alcohol OverdoseAlcohol is the most commonly used and abused substance by youth in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2015 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 7.7 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported they had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days. Excessive drinking leads to more than 4,300 deaths of underage drinkers each year. About 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States is consumed by teens and young adults aged 12 to 20 years old. And about 90 percent of that consumption takes place in the form of binge drinking. The CDC reported that, on average, underage alcohol users consume more drinks per one drinking occasion than the average adult drinker. What’s worse is that teenage alcohol use can interfere with normal adolescent brain development. And early-onset drinking is also linked to the development of alcohol use disorder (AUD) later in life. AUD is a chronic relapsing brain disease that impairs a person’s ability to stop or control alcohol use regardless of adverse health consequences, such as possible alcohol poisoning and death. Teens who abuse alcohol are also more likely to misuse other drugs, according to the CDC. Mixing drugs with alcohol can also result in a deadly overdose.
Signs and Symptoms of an OverdoseSigns and symptoms of an overdose can vary based on the substance ingested and how a person’s body responds to it. Other factors that might affect an individual’s signs and symptoms of overdose include the amount of the substance ingested and a person’s overall health. But some symptoms of an overdose are the same regardless of contributing factors. General symptoms of an overdose include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Abdominal cramps
- Slurred speech
- Trouble breathing
- Blue-tinted skin
- Internal bleeding
- Loss of consciousness
- Gurgling or snoring during sleep
Getting Help: Treating an OverdoseOverdose treatment and recovery depend on the severity of the overdose as well as a person’s symptoms. If you suspect a person has overdosed, you can call the poison control center hotline at 1-800-222-1222 to receive instructions on what to do next. The hotline is available 24/7. An overdose is a medical emergency. Always call 911 or get the patient to an emergency room as soon as possible. Severe or large overdoses can cause a person to stop breathing. This can result in permanent brain injury or death if not treated right away. The faster treatment is administered, the better a person’s chances of survival and long-term outcomes. Treatments for an overdose might include:
- Activated charcoal
- Airway support
- Blood and urine tests
- Chest x-ray
- CT scan
- IV fluids
- Antidotes (Flumazenil, Naloxone, etc.)
Substance Abuse and Mental Health TreatmentStatistics show that teens who suffer from mental health problems — such as depression and anxiety — are more likely to misuse substances. And while mental illnesses affect tens of millions of people each year, only half of those people get treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have the highest incidence of any mental illness (AMI) and the lowest likelihood of receiving treatment. Women are more likely than men to get treated for AMI. But even more shocking is recent data that showed that an estimated 49.5 percent of U.S. adolescents aged 13 to 18 had AMI. And of those, more than 22 percent had severe impairment. Additionally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in preteens, teens and young adults between the ages of 10 and 34. And overdose was among the top ways in which people committed suicide. Not only can substance abuse that co-occurs with mental illness lead to an overdose and possible death, but teens run the risk of developing other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, later in life. Early intervention is key. Signs of a problem usually begin appearing two to four years before an actual disorder develops, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Warning signs include:
- Changes in personality
- Changes in sleep habits
- Declining grades and behavior problems
- Relationship problems or a change in friends
- Changes in appearance and hygiene
- Poor health
- Changes in diet
- Lack of interest in things they used to enjoy
- Red bloodshot eyes
Preventing an OverdoseThere are some things that you can do to avoid an overdose.
- Limit your exposure to unnecessary prescription and over-the-counter drugs. For example, it is best to avoid opioid use when a less potent medication can be used to relieve your pain.
- When taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, you should always read the drugs’ labels and inserts carefully. All medications should be used exactly as directed or prescribed.
- If a medication is not effective in treating your ailment or illness, talk to your doctor before taking more of the medication, altering the method of use or switching medications.
- Never mix medications unless advised by your doctor. Certain medications and substances can interact with each other and cause adverse reactions or increase a person’s risk of an overdose.
- Always check with your doctor before taking new medications or substances, including vitamins and herbal supplements.
- Don’t try illicit drugs or take a drug of any kind that are not in their original packaging or are offered by someone you don’t know and trust. Prescription drugs should be taken only by the person to whom the drug is prescribed.
- Properly dispose of old prescription drugs through a drug take-back program.
- Underage drinking should be avoided. Excessive drinking at any age is not advised and can be harmful to your health.