What is an Overdose?

Drug overdoses can be accidental or intentional. They occur when a person takes more than the medically recommended dose of a drug or more than their body has developed a tolerance for. Some people may be more sensitive to, or have a lower tolerance for, certain medications and so will overdose on a lower amount than another person.

Deaths from an overdose may be from heart failure (where the heart rate is slowed or stopped), liver failure (where the body is unable to eliminate the drug fast enough leading to poisoning) or respiratory failure.

The physical symptoms of a drug overdose vary with the type of drug(s) taken and may include:

  • Abnormal breathing
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slow or rapid pulse
  • Low or elevated body temperature
  • Enlarged or small eye pupils
  • Reddish face
  • Heavy sweating
  • Drowsiness
  • Delusions and/or hallucinations
  • Unconsciousness which may lead to coma

Overdose is most commonly associated with depressant drugs like opiates, barbiturates and solvents, particularly when these drugs are mixed with other depressants such as alcohol and tranquillisers. Overdosing with stimulants is less common, but can still occur. Symptoms of a stimulant overdose may include agitation, over heating and tremor.

Overdosing with opiates can be treated with a chemical called Naloxone which reverses the action of opiates. See also the Naloxone Action Group website. and our DrugSearch page on Naloxone. Note that if you have a family member who is dependent on heroin or other opiates you may be able to get Naloxone medication, in case they overdose. Details on how to administer Naloxone can be found here.

Always seek medical attention as a matter of urgency if you suspect someone has taken an overdose.

Updated December 2016