August 11, 2020

Overdose Awareness Day – Time to remember. Time to act.


An annual, global event held on 31 August, International Overdose Awareness Day is about raising awareness on overdose – what it is, the signs of an overdose, and how to respond.

It’s about educating people in order to reduce the stigma surrounding drug-related deaths.

And it’s also about acknowledging the grief of the families and friends who have lost a loved one to an overdose.

International Overdose Awareness Day spreads a critical message - deaths from overdose are preventable.1

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.

And the risk of having an overdose increases when different drugs are taken together.2

Contrary to common perceptions that illegal drugs like heroin are the main cause of overdose, rates of pharmaceutical drug overdoses are actually higher.

There were 1,612 unintentional drug-induced deaths in Australia in 2017, accounting for almost three-quarters (74.6%) of all drug-induced deaths. This means that more than four unintentional drug-induced deaths per day occurred in 2017.2

Opioids were the most commonly identified in unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2017, followed by benzodiazepines and then stimulants.

These unintentional deaths were most common among the 40-49 age group, which accounted for 27.9% of all unintentional drug-induced deaths in 2017. Fewer than one in ten (9.4%) deaths recorded was among people aged under 30.

Males were more than twice as likely as females to suffer an unintentional drug-induced death in 2017, accounting for 71.5% of deaths.2

These deaths are preventable.

Signs and symptoms of an overdose

The signs and symptoms of an overdose vary between drugs and between people. But in general, a depressant drug or an opioid drug overdose will have different symptoms to a stimulant drug overdose.

Depressant drugs like alcohol, or an opioid drug like heroin or oxycodone will more likely result in shallow or slow breathing, a slow pulse, and being pale, clammy or having blue lips and fingernails.3

A stimulant drug overdose like methamphetamine or amphetamine will more likely result in symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain, and spasms or seizures.3

Harm minimisation

Over the past two decades the number of people dying from drug overdose has increased alarmingly. Responding accordingly to this public health crisis is essential to save lives and reduce trauma.

This is why initiatives like the medically supervised injecting centre (MSIC) in Richmond, and maintaining the MSIC in Sydney, are so critical. So is increasing access to naloxone and providing training in how to use it.

And we need to continue having conversations about overdose – especially raising awareness about the harms arising from pharmaceutical drugs and the deaths resulting from them.

How to help in an emergency

If someone looks like they are in trouble and can’t be woken after drinking alcohol or using drugs, it’s very important that they get medical help quickly. A quick response can save their life.

Call an ambulance by dialling triple zero (000). Ambulance officers are not required to involve the police unless they feel personally in danger.

Stay with the person until the ambulance arrives. Find out if anyone at the scene knows CPR in case the person stops breathing.

Ensure the person has enough air by keeping crowds back and opening windows or taking them outside. Loosen tight clothing.

If the person is unconscious or wants to lie down, put them in the recovery position. This involves gently rolling them onto their side and slightly tilting their head back. This stops them from choking if they vomit and allows them to breathe easily.

Provide ambulance officers with as much information as you can, such as how much of the drug was used, how long ago and any pre-existing medical conditions. If they have taken a drug that came in a packet, give the packet to the ambulance officers.

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 could save a life.

  1. Pennington Institute. International Overdose Awareness Day Time to remember Time to act 2020.
  2. Pennington Institute. Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2019. 2019.
  3. Pennington Institute. Overdose Basics 2020.

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