February 9, 2024


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If you can’t wake someone and you believe they have overdosed, call an ambulance immediately by dialling triple zero (000).

What’s an overdose?

An overdose happens when a toxic amount of a drug or a combination of drugs causes a severe adverse reaction. This can happen because too much is taken or because different drugs are taken at the same time. Combining drugs increases the chances of overdose.1

Why do people overdose?

Overdoses can be intentional or accidental. An intentional overdose occurs when a person deliberately takes a drug/s to harm themselves. Accidental overdose can happen for various reasons:

  • The drug taken was different to what was expected. With illegal drugs, it's impossible to know what’s really in them or how strong they are.1 With new psychoactive substances ('synthetic drugs') being added to many illegal drugs, it’s more likely that you won’t know what you’re taking. For example, there are reports of NBOMes being added to ecstasy pills.3
  • Alcohol and other drugs affect memory, thinking and judgement. When you’re drunk or ‘high’, you’re usually not thinking about the risks of overdosing.1 And it’s easy to forget what and how much you’ve taken. It also means it’s easy to decide to take more or mix drugs, without thinking about the possible risks.
  • The decision to take a drug was based on someone else's reaction to it. Everyone’s body is different. Your reaction to a drug might be different from someone else’s.

Drugs affect everyone differently based on:

  • size, weight and health
  • gender
  • previous use of the drug
  • quantity and timing of other drugs taken around the same time
  • strength of the drug.

Signs and symptoms of overdose

Depressant drugs

Depressant drugs, including heroin, codeine, oxycodone, benzodiazepines and alcohol, slow down the messages travelling between the brain and body.

Some signs of a depressant drug overdose are:

  • vomiting
  • being unresponsive, but awake
  • limp body
  • pale and/or clammy face
  • bluish fingernails and/or lips
  • shallow or erratic breathing, or not breathing at all
  • slow or erratic pulse (heartbeat)
  • choking sounds or a gurgling noise
  • loss of consciousness
  • death.3

Stimulant drugs

Stimulant drugs, including amphetamines (such as ice and cocaine) speed up the messages travelling between the brain and the body.

Some signs of a stimulant drug overdose are:

  • agitation
  • paranoia
  • severe stomach pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • seizures
  • chest pain
  • heart attack
  • heart stops
  • coma
  • stroke
  • death.4


Paracetamol is the most common form of overdose leading to hospitalisation.

Signs of paracetamol overdose include:

  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • loss of coordination
  • low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), which can cause sweating, trembling and irritability
  • liver damage
  • death.5,6

However, it’s important to get help immediately after the tablets are taken as serious damage to the body has usually happened by the time these effects are felt.

Overdose and organ damage

Non-fatal overdoses may still cause permanent organ damage. The liver and the kidneys are two organs at very high risk. Overdose can also cause brain damage if someone stops breathing, or if their breathing patterns restrict oxygen to the brain.7

Treating someone who has overdosed

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 aren’t 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 choking if they vomit and allows them to breath 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.


Naloxone (also known as Narcan®) reverses the effects of heroin and other opioids, particularly in the case of an overdose. Medical professionals can give naloxone via injection. Friends and family can also buy naxolone directly from a pharmacy or with a prescription, which is subsidised.

  1. Pennington Institute. (n.d.) Overdose basics.
  2. Gerstner-Stevens, J. (2013). Analysis results for Victorian seizures of emerging psychoactive substances and pharmaceutical opioids for 2012–13. Drug Trends Conference 2013. Melbourne: Victoria Police.
  3. Harm Reduction Coalition. (n.d.). Recognizing opioid overdose.
  4. MedlinePlus. (2014). Methamphetamine overdose.
  5. Yoon E, Babar A, Choudhary M, Kutner M, Pyrsopoulos N. Acetaminophen-Induced Hepatotoxicity: a Comprehensive Update. Journal of clinical and translational hepatology. 2016;4(2):131-42.
  6. National Health Service. (2013). Symptoms of poisoning.
  7. E Medicine Health. (2014). Drug overdose.
  8. Roxburgh, A., Dobbins, T., Degenhardt, L. and Peacock, A. (2018). Opioid-, amphetamine-, and cocaine-induced deaths in

Opioid overdose 2016

  • In 2016, there were 1,045 opioid-induced deaths among Australians aged 15-64 years (6.6 per 100,000 people) compared to 1,083 in 2015 (6.9 per 100,000 people).
  • Almost half (45%) of opioid-induced deaths recorded benzodiazepines as contributing to the death.
  • 23% of opioid-induced deaths recorded antidepressants as contributing to the death.
  • 14% of opioid- induced deaths recorded alcohol as contributing to the death.
  • 13.5% of opioid-induced deaths recorded antipsychotics as contributing to the death.
  • 9.9% of opioid-induced deaths recorded paracetamol as contributing to the death.
  • The percentage of opioid-induced deaths where benzodiazepines and antipsychotics contributed to the death has increased since 2007 (from 35% and 7%, respectively).
  • In 2016, rates of death attributed to heroin increased from 0.9 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 2.2 per 100,000 people.
  • The rate of opioid-induced deaths was higher among males (9.0 per 100,000 people) than females (4.1 per 100,000 people), this is consistent with previous years.8

Amphetamine overdose 2016

  • There were 105 amphetamine-induced deaths among Australians aged 15-64 years (0.7 per 100,000 people). This represents an increase relative to 2015 (0.6 per 100,000 people), and the highest rate since monitoring commenced.8

Cocaine overdose 2016

  • In 2016, there were fewer than 20 cocaine-induced deaths among Australians aged 15-64 years. This is consistent with previous years.8

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