Every year on August 31st, we come together as a global community to observe International Overdose Awareness Day. We take this day to honor the lives lost to drug overdoses by raising awareness about the issue. Overdose Awareness Day is held on the last day of August, before the first day of Recovery Awareness Month in September.
History Behind International Overdose Awareness Day
International Overdose Awareness Day began in 2001. It began in Australia, under the direction of a woman named Sally Finn. At the time, Finn was working for the Salvation Army Crisis Centre. She was the manager of their safe needle program. Peter Streker and Sally Finn gave out thousands of awareness ribbons to raise awareness for overdose. Since its’ founding in 2001, over 40 countries have joined in observing International Overdose Awareness Day.
“Overdose Awareness Day is, at its heart, an opportunity to commemorate the death of someone loved, with pride.
Whether the person was a friend, a family member, or a life partner, the shock and sadness when someone dies of overdose is equal to any loss felt when a loved-one passes away.
However, it is a grief that, in today’s world, is complicated by the stigma of drug use, by the hatred that stigma generates.”
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a disease that affects the brain. It is complex and multifaceted. Addiction causes an individual to compulsively take a particular drug routinely. They use drugs regardless of the consequences they suffer as a result.
Addiction starts when a substance is introduced into the system. The person will seek the intoxication that the substance caused the first time. Once a person begins to use the substance on a regular basis, their brain rewires. They will begin to develop cravings for the substance. Cravings will override rational thought and behavior. The individual will experience an extreme sense of urgency to consume the substance. Over time, they will develop a tolerance and need more of the substance to become intoxicated. As the tolerance increases, the danger for overdose also increases. This is because the amount of the drug needed to become intoxicated rises. The more they take, the higher their risk for overdose.
What Are the Signs of Addiction?
The signs and symptoms of addiction vary depending on the substance. There are some general rules of thumb when it comes to a budding addiction, though.
The first sign is somewhat obvious. When it comes to prescription drugs, are you taking the medication for longer than needed? This can be a complicated question for two reasons. First, pain is subjective. Second, need is also subjective in this sense. Someone may feel as though they need the medication even after they do.
Another early sign of addiction to prescribed medication is taking the medication differently than instructed. This can start as innocently as taking another dose 30 minutes before you are supposed to. Then, you take it a little sooner than that. Then, you find yourself doubling your dose.
A tolerance develops after continued use of a substance. The body gradually adjusts to the substance. You begin to feel its’ effects less and less as the tolerance grows. People suffering from addiction will develop a tolerance to their substance of choice. A growing tolerance is a substantial contributor to overdose. People take more than they are used to in order to achieve intoxication. That leads to consuming more of the substance than their body can handle.
Another major sign of addiction is feeling sick when you do not have the substance in your system. This may manifest as nausea or vomiting. It may cause aches and pain, similar to the flu. It may cause lethargy, headaches, chills, or sweating.
Chemical dependence often causes depression. This is because the level of dopamine and serotonin in the brain are impacted by drug use. This causes a behavioral change in many people suffering from addiction. They no longer enjoy the things that they once loved, and withdraw from friends and family. The more isolated they become, the more their depression worsens. When depression worsens, people use drugs to feel better. It's a vicious cycle.
Why Are People Becoming Addicted to Drugs?
The United States is currently facing an unprecedented drug problem. The rise in prescription pain medication use has caused an alarming rise in abuse. A short-term prescription for illness or injury can cause chemical dependence after only a few weeks. That dependence quickly progresses into an addiction that people are unable to overcome on their own. Many people turn to street drugs when they can no longer get a prescription. This has led to a rise in opioid and opiate use and overdoses nationwide.
What is the Opioid Epidemic?
Today’s opioid epidemic, or opioid crisis, was born in the 1990’s. In the 1990’s, doctors were encouraged to take pain more seriously with the development of “the fifth vital sign.” The fifth vital sign was a scale from one to ten that measured a patient’s pain level. If the patient experienced moderate to severe pain, doctors would prescribe pain medication. The intentions were good.
There were problems with this system. The scale was subjective, and it was impossible to know if the number given was accurate or honest. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of patients treated with opioids. There were other factors, too. A popular medical journal published a letter saying that chronic pain patients rarely became addicted. Pharmaceutical companies also reassured prescribers that they were low risk. The combination led to an increase in the use and abuse of pain medication.
What are the Signs of an Overdose?
An overdose occurs when too much of a substance is taken. The metabolism is unable to eliminate the substance fast enough to maintain vital organ function. The signs of an overdose are dependent on the drug taken. In general you will see some combination of vital functions affected.
Shallow breathing and a weak pulse are signs of central nervous system depression. Central nervous system depression can lead to a coma or respiratory arrest. Central nervous system depression is very serious. Slow and shallow breathing or a weak pulse can become deadly. This may also cause fingers and lips to turn blue. If fingers and lips turn blue, there isn’t enough oxygen circulating through the body. If tissue doesn't get enough oxygen it will die.
Loss of consciousness is a serious sign of overdose. If someone is unresponsive, or you cannot wake him or her up, you should call 911 immediately. Loss of consciousness can be the result of trauma to the brain. It is also a sign that the brain is not functioning properly.
Overdose can cause heart arrhythmia and tachycardia. The heart is unable to regulate its' rhythm and rate. In a worst-case scenario, this can cause sudden cardiac arrest. In stimulant overdose, the heart will race and they may experience chest pain. In depressant overdose, the heart rate may become too slow or erratic to sustain life.
Vomiting is a sign that the body is trying to rid itself of toxins. Many people don’t consider how dangerous vomiting can be. People who lose consciousness can vomit. If they are not laying on their side, the vomit can get stuck in their airway. Choking on vomit has caused many overdose deaths.
What Can I Do to Prevent an Overdose?
There is only one safe way to prevent an overdose from opioids and opiates. Naloxone is a medication that helps to reverse an overdose. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, which means that it binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This stops opioids from binding with the receptors. It works on people who already show signs of overdose. It has even brought people who have stopped breathing back. In many cases, but not all, Naloxone is an effective way to prevent overdose.
Naloxone is administered three ways. The first way is through injection by a trained professional. This is usually administered by emergency responders. The other two ways are available to the public, though laws on how to attain them differ by state. Some states require a prescription. Other states make it available at pharmacies without a prescription. They come in the form of a nasal spray and auto-injector.
The nasal spray is called Narcan, but there is some concern about how effective it is. The auto-injector is called Evzio. Evzio is administered like an epi-pen for people with life threatening allergies. It is injected in the thigh. When you need to use it, you activate the auto-injector and it gives audio instructions to the user. Both are safe and easy to use in an emergency.
How Do I Help Someone Who is Addicted to Drugs?
Every person struggling with addiction is different. Addiction is a disease that distorts perception. It causes overwhelming feelings of shame, mistrust, and fear. Discussing substance abuse with someone suffering from addiction can be very difficult. It will likely be met with resistance and defensiveness. But don’t let that stop you. It may take 100 conversations before they really hear you. It may take 1000 conversations before they feel the desire to change. But, each conversation will get you both closer to changing the situation. As long as you come from a place of love, compassion, and understanding, keep trying.
The biggest thing you can do on your own to help someone suffering from addiction is to get educated. Try visiting an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting to hear what other people in your position have tried. They teach you about how to deal with your loved one in a healthy way. You can also try visiting a counselor. They may be able to help you develop some ways to approach a conversation. It may be beneficial to do group counseling together.
Take them to an AA or NA meeting. It may help them to hear stories from other people who have walked in their shoes. You never know whose story may resonate with them and inspire them to change. It may simply offer them hope that life after addiction is possible and can be fulfilling. Even if they aren’t ready yet, becoming comfortable in a recovery environment could reduce some of the fear associated with getting help.
Call a professional addiction specialist. Talk to rehabilitation centers about their program. Find treatment centers that take their insurance, and learn about different treatment options. That way, when they are ready, it will be an easier transition. Some treatment centers have a waitlist, so it is good to look into this step in advance.
Share Your Story
Sadly, many of us have lost loved ones to a drug overdose. I have experienced the utter shock and grief caused by overdose first hand. A dear friend of mine overdosed on prescription pain medicine. He was awaiting a corrective surgery to treat the source of his chronic pain. The surgery was less than a month away. His pain was legitimate, his addiction was understandable, and his death was unbearable for everyone who loved him.
He was one of the funniest people I have ever met. So funny that he would captivate an entire room and leave people gasping for air through fits of laughter. He had the biggest heart and took care of everyone. I am so grateful that he was part of my life. I remember him and smile, so thankful for the memories. I am better for having known him. This post is for him.
Eight people who have been part of my life in some way, at some point, have passed away from drug overdoses. None of these people were using drugs or pain medicine when I knew them. They were all wonderful people, who I remember fondly. They were loved dearly. They were not selfish, or bad, or weak.
For each of them, a situation occurred that shifted the course of their lives. It set off a chain of events and eventually they succumbed to their addiction. I still get Facebook updates for their birthdays every year. It breaks my heart. I share this so that people may get a sense of how serious and pervasive this issue has become. These were people of all ages and backgrounds. It can truly happen to anyone.
Please feel free to share your story or pay tribute to someone you’ve lost in the comments.