August 16, 2021

Overdose Awareness Day

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August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual global event with an important message  – deaths from overdose are preventable.1

This is a day to collectively remember all those who have died from overdose, and to acknowledge the grief of families and friends.

To help reduce stigma around drug-related deaths, the day also raises awareness about overdose – what it is and how to recognise and respond.

What is an overdose?

All drugs, including alcohol and pharmaceutical medications, can cause an overdose.

An overdose happens when a person has more of a drug, or a combination of drugs, than their body can manage.2

And the risk of overdose increases when different drugs are taken together.3

Australia’s overdose rate

Many people think illegal drugs, like heroin, are the main cause of overdose, but rates of pharmaceutical drug overdose are actually higher.3

Three-quarters of all drug-induced deaths in Australia are unintentional.

In 2018, there were 1,556 accidental overdose deaths in Australia – that’s four per day.2

Opioids were the most common group of drugs identified in unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2018, followed by benzodiazepines and then stimulants. Opioids include common prescribed medications such as oxycodone and codeine, as well as illegal drugs such as heroin. Drugs like Valium® and Xanax® are brand names of common benzodiazepines.

The number of people dying from drug overdose has increased alarmingly over the past two decades.3

The age group with the highest overdose rate was 40-49-year-olds – accounting for nearly 30% of all unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2018.  Nearly three-quarters of those unintentional overdose deaths were males.3

Among people under 30, overdose deaths were less than 10%.

These deaths are preventable.

Signs and symptoms of overdose

The signs and symptoms of an overdose vary between drugs.

Generally, a depressant drug overdose will have different symptoms to a stimulant drug overdose.

A depressant overdose, from drugs like alcohol, heroin or oxycodone, will typically result in shallow or slow breathing, clamminess, a slow pulse and sometimes blue lips and fingernails.

While a stimulant overdose, from drugs like methamphetamine or amphetamine, will typically result in symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain, and spasms or seizures.2

Check out the Drug Wheel to find more information on specific drugs and types of drugs, including overdose symptoms.

How to respond to an overdose

Knowing how to respond to an overdose quickly and correctly can save someone’s life.

This is why initiatives like the medically supervised injecting rooms (MSIR) in Richmond and Sydney are critical.

Providing access to and training in administering naloxone, a drug that can temporarily reverse opioid overdose, is also critical.

If someone looks like they’re in trouble or can’t be woken after drinking alcohol or using drugs, it’s essential they get medical help.

If you can’t get a response from someone, don’t assume they’re asleep.

Not all overdoses happen quickly and sometimes it can take hours for someone to die.

Doing something early can save a life.

  • Call an ambulance by dialling triple zero (000). Ambulance officers are not required to involve the police unless they feel personally in danger.
  • Administer naloxone if the person has taken opioids.
  • Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives.
  • Listen to and follow the instructions over the phone from emergency services.
  • Find out if anyone nearby knows CPR, in case the person stops breathing.
  • Ensure the person has enough air – keep crowds back and open windows or take them outside.
  • Loosen tight clothing.
  • Put the person in the recovery position – lay them onto their side and slightly tilt their head back. This stops them from choking if they vomit and allows them to breathe more easily.4

Provide ambulance officers with as much information as you can – the type of drug, how much, how long ago and any pre-existing medical conditions. Provide the ambulance officers with any packaging that may have held the drug.

Show your support

The tragedy of overdose death is preventable and more must be done to save lives.

Show your support on August 31 by posting a tribute, wearing a badge, wristband or lanyard, or through your social media by engaging with the online International Overdose Awareness Day community.

You can also get involved in Overdose Awareness Day by holding an event – the campaign website provides an event support kit to help you run your event.

Visit the International Overdose Awareness Day website for more information.

  1. Pennington Institute. Overdose Awareness Day 2021 [cited: 13.07.2021].
  2. Pennington Institute. Overdose Basics2020 [cited: 06/08/21].
  3. Pennington Institute. Australia's Annual Overdose Report 2020. Melbourne 2020.
  4. Pennington Institute. Depressants fact sheet n.d. [cited: 23.07.2021].

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