Symptoms and Signs of Drug Overdose

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 9/23/2021

Doctor's Notes on Drug Overdose Symptoms, Home Care, and Hospital Treatment

Drug overdoses are when individuals of any age accidentally or intentionally take chemicals (medications, illicit drugs, or other toxic substances) that are potentially harmful to the person. Signs and symptoms may vary markedly with whatever chemical is ingested, absorbed through the skin, or injected. However, some general signs and symptoms of an unknown drug or chemical substance overdose usually include one or more of the problems listed below:

  • Vital signs (temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure) can be abnormal (high, low, or undetectable).
  • Mental status changes such as abnormal sleepiness, confusion, and/or coma may develop.
  • Skin can be cool and sweaty or hot and dry.
  • Eye pupils may be pinpoint or dilated.
  • Abdominal symptoms and signs such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or blood in the vomitus or in bowel movements may occur.
  • Serious symptoms and signs of seizures, chest pain, and shortness of breath and/or stoppage of breathing may occur.
  • Many drug overdoses have more than one sign or symptom that can lead to a life-threatening result or death. The cause of drug overdoses in general is accidental or intentional ingestion, absorption, or injection of a potentially life-threatening amount of one or more substances.

What Are the Treatments for Drug Overdose Symptoms and Signs?

Treating a drug overdose varies. It is helpful to know what and how much was taken, but many times this information is not available. Call 911. The following treatments may be used to treat many types of drug overdoses:

  • Airway protection: Clear the airway. Some patients may need a breathing tube with mechanical ventilation support.
  • Absorb drugs in the GI tract by giving activated charcoal.
  • Pump out drugs from the stomach.
  • Give IV fluids to dilute drugs and remove them in urine.
  • Some doctors suggest inducing vomiting, but others suggest this not be done, especially if the drug or chemical is likely to be aspirated or damage the esophagus.

Once the drug is identified, an antidote (like naloxone for heroin) may be available.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.