August 20, 2018

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 also about educating people in order to reduce the stigma surrounding drug-related deaths.

And it’s 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.

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.

In Australia, 1,808 people died from an overdose in 2016.1 This is the highest number of overdose deaths recorded since the late 1990’s.1

Since then, the pattern of overdose deaths has changed significantly. Contrary to common perceptions that illegal drugs like heroin are the main cause of overdose, rates of pharmaceutical drug overdoses are actually higher.

Pharmaceutical medications are responsible for 69% of accidental overdose deaths – greater than all illegal drugs combined.2

In 1999, a person who died from a drug overdose was most likely a male in his early 30s, with the likely cause of death being heroin, morphine or benzodiazepines.

In 2016, the person most most likely to overdose was a middle-age man living outside of a capital city, by misusing prescription drugs such as oxycodone or benzodiazepines, and engaging in poly-drug use (using multiple drugs, including alcohol).

These deaths are most likely to be accidental.3 And they are preventable.

Signs and symptoms of an overdose

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

A depressant drug like oxycodone, heroin, or alcohol will more likely result in shallow or slow breathing, a slow pulse, and being pale, clammy or having blue lips and fingernails.

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.

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 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. ABS. Causes of Death, Australia, 2016. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016.
  2. Pennington Institute. Australia's Annual Overdose Report. Melbourne: Pennington Institute , 2016.
  3. ABS. Causes of Death, Australia, 2016. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016.

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