Prescription Drug Overdose

The opioid epidemic is affecting millions of people in the US. Read on to find out how to prevent a prescription drug overdose. 

Table of Contents

What is a Prescription Drug Overdose?

Medication overdoses occur when a person has taken a lethal dosage of any prescription drug or drug combination. Over a hundred people die every day in the United States from a prescription drug overdose.1 Many more individuals go on to develop drug dependency.

While opioids have been used in medicine for years, their dangers are only more recently discovered. Until recently, opioids were over-prescribed as it was thought they had little risk of addiction or death. However, with medication overdoses on the rise combined with the impact on rural communities, more and more studies have outlined the exact cause of medicine overdoses and how to prevent this issue. 2  


Accidental narcotic overdoses can occur when a person is unaware of the dangers of mixing pharmaceuticals, such as drinking alcohol while on opioids. Accidental overdoses also occur when a person does not pay attention to the amount of the drug they take or if they are unaware of a potentially lethal underlying health issue. To prevent an accidental overdose, always follow the doctor’s recommendation. 

Intentional Misuse

Intentional misuse occurs when a person takes a prescription with the sole purpose of getting high. Opioids are highly addictive, and the body builds a tolerance, which can encourage people to take increasing amounts of the drug, leading to a med overdose.

Alternatively, people may enter a state of recovery followed by relapse. During a relapse, a person may attempt to consume the exact quantities of the drug as before without realizing their tolerance has lowered, but this mistake can be lethal. 

What Causes Someone to Overdose on Prescription Drugs?

When taken as recommended, there is a relatively small chance of experiencing any of the signs of prescription overdose. However, an overdose can occur if complications arise from unknown underlying health issues. 

Recommended Dose

The recommended dose can vary based on illness, individual, and doctor. However, it is essential to check with your doctor about any other medication you may be on because the recommended dosage may not account for other drugs in your system. Taking Xanax while on opioids, for example, can cause health issues.3

If you take the recommended dosage and still experience pain or discomfort, then speak with your doctor. 

Over the Recommended Dose

Exceeding the recommended amount can cause symptoms of a prescription drug overdose. Keep in mind that surviving an overdose can also cause lifelong complications: heart issues, liver failure, kidney failure, and more. The risk is amplified if multiple drugs are in the system because some drugs, such as opioids and alcohol, can have compounding effects when mixed and taken in excess. 

How Many Prescription Drugs Does It Take To Overdose?

The exact amount of medicine it takes before the signs of a prescription drug overdose appear varies between drugs and people. However, oxycodone, alprazolam, and diazepam are three of the most common drugs to cause an overdose.4

Higher Dose

A majority (approximately 40%) of prescription drug poisonings occur from high-dose medication. ⁵ Higher doses can cause complications in a single session due to their potent nature. In addition, because of their potency, mixing them with drugs and alcohol carries a higher risk.

Longer Exposure

Longer exposure to prescription drugs can cause dependency. Over time it can weaken various bodily systems like the liver, kidney, and heart, which can cause health complications or aggravate underlying health issues. 

Prescription Drug Overdose Statistics

Prescription drug dependency occurs most often with opioids, depressants, and stimulants. Here are the rates of overdose. 

Opioid Painkillers

  • Women are at the greatest risk of experiencing or showing signs of a prescription drug overdose. Moreover, this rate has increased 400% since 1999.6
  • Approximately 198,000 women who show signs of a prescription drug overdose and survive form a dependency on the drug.6
  • Women aged twenty-five to thirty-four are at the highest risk, with ages forty-five to fifty-four close behind.6
  • Up to 29% of people prescribed opioids go on to abuse them.7
  • 80% of heroin users begin their addiction journey with opioids.
  • Opioid abuse most commonly affects people in the northeast United States.7
  • 2019 saw the highest opioid overdoses to date in the United States.


Anti-depressants like benzodiazepines cause thousands of deaths per year, and this number is on the rise.8


  • Stimulant overdoses were on the rise from approximately 3,616 in 2013 to 16,137 in 2019.9
  • However, stimulants were at least partially responsible for approximately 30,000 deaths in 2019.9
  • Prescription stimulant drugs make up to 53% of all stimulant overdoses.9
  • Stimulant overdoses occur most often between ages thirty-five to forty-four.9  

What Happens To The Body During Prescription Drugs Overdose?

Symptoms of a prescription drug overdose cause a variety of changes in the body, making it difficult to diagnose co-occurring issues. Here are some of the most common changes to the body from a prescription drug overdose. 


Prescription drug use, specifically stimulants, can cause high blood pressure and lead to hypertension and poor blood flow. Stimulants can also lead to insomnia which in turn can weaken the immune system. 


One of the signs of a prescription drug overdose and use, especially with opioids, is how they disrupt brain chemistry by interfering with the natural production of dopamine and other mood-stabilizing chemicals. These substances can also intensify the effects of depression or anxiety.

Drug-related brain damage such as tics, strange speech patterns, and impaired memory can make it difficult to hold down steady employment or maintain relationships. When combined with underlying health issues like depression, it can increase the likelihood of suicide. Take note that depression increases the chance of relapse and creates an additional barrier to recovery. With all these factors together, addiction becomes an increasingly deadly illness. 10 


Symptoms of a prescription drug overdose can cause undue strain on the heart, leading to weakened heart valves, fatigue, and irregular heart rhythm. Heart issues can lead to brain and lung damage if left untreated and make a person more likely to overdose from continued drug use.

Worth noting that heart issues can significantly limit the dosage and type of medications prescribed for other illnesses. For example, a person with heart issues would need to avoid certain types of cold and flu medication, various herbs and may need a strict diet.11 


Abusing prescription drugs, like depressants, can slow down the central nervous system. It can cause delayed breathing, shallow breathing, and chest pain. These effects can be intensified when mixed with alcohol, marijuana, or nicotine. Over time, the strain on your lungs can lower your average air supply and lead to fatigue or require surgery to fix, and even then, some damage may be irreversible. 

What Should You Do if You Think Someone May Have Overdosed on Prescription Drugs?

The most important thing to do in an emergency is to resist the urge to panic. Should you see someone overdosing on prescription substances, there are a few things to know that can help the situation. 

  • Know the signs of an overdose: A person overdosing, or OD’ing, can cause slurred speech, poor focus, loss of coordination, red or flushed skin, jitters, emotional outbursts, and severe confusion.
  • Call 911: Call emergency services as soon as possible, explain the situation, location, and inform them of any pertinent medical information.
  • Know about Good Samaritan laws: Good Samaritan laws exist in all fifty states and serve as the standard for help. If you see someone actively overdosing on pills, it is your moral and legal responsibility to seek help for them. 

Is There Prescription Drug Overdose Treatment?

There are ways to reverse the signs of a prescription drug overdoses or stop them from being fatal. These are the two main methods.

Immediate Treatment

Immediate treatment involves detox, IV fluids, and medical oversight to manage overdose and withdrawal symptoms. There can be mood instabilities associated with withdrawal that require treatment to be managed.


Rehabilitation to some degree is a must for anyone affected by drug dependency. Rehab involves an isolated, peaceful facility or community dedicated to drug recovery. There are also emergency rehabilitation clinics for those that need it. Rehab can help teach positive habits and reinforce positive traits. 

How Can You Prevent Prescription a Drug Overdose at The PAC Program?

We at The PAC Program offer tailored care to help with addiction and dependency. There are multiple ways to enter recovery, but these are the most common. 

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is 24/7 care and medical oversight designed to combat withdrawal and provide a safe, drug-free environment to recover in. Inpatient works best for those that feel they are unable to recover in their home environment. 

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment involves drug check-ins and tests to help monitor the effects of withdrawal. Moreover, it allows a person to return to their work and home life during treatment. This treatment is especially beneficial for people who experience stress or anxiety during their recovery period. 


Therapies for drug use involve CBT, trauma therapy, and group therapy, all designed to uncover the root cause of addiction and instill healthy coping mechanisms for recovery. Therapies also help prevent or manage the effects of prescription drug withdrawal. Like all forms of recovery, therapy takes time and commitment to be effective.


If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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