Dealing with Alcohol or Other Drug Overdose (OD) Situations

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Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is what happens when someone drinks a lot of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too fast can affect a person’s breathing, heart rate and gag reflex. It can also lead to coma or death. Drinking a lot very quickly is the main cause of alcohol poisoning. Youth, who are not as familiar with the effects of alcohol, and tend to drink in more risky ways, are especially vulnerable. A person with alcohol poisoning needs immediate medical attention. If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, call 911 or your local poison control centre right away.


Tips for preventing alcohol poisoning
  • Know your limit. Most people find they can have one drink per hour without any harmful effects (with a maximum of four drinks (for men) or three (for women) on any one day.)

  • Eat food while you drink. Food, especially high protein food such as meat, cheese and peanuts, will help slow the absorption of alcohol into your body.

  • Don’t participate in “chugging” contests or other drinking games.

  • Have a non-alcoholic drink between alcoholic ones. This will help keep your blood alcohol content level down.

  • Don’t just sit around and drink. If you stay active you tend to drink less and be more aware of effects alcohol may be having on you.


What to do if someone has alcohol poisoning

People experience the effects of alcohol differently. If a large amount of alcohol is in a person’s system, it can result in unconsciousness.

  • Try to wake the person up by calling their name, shaking or pinching them. If they don’t respond, get help.

  • Put the person in the recovery position (shown below) so they will not choke to death on their vomit if they get sick.

  • Check the person’s skin. If his or her skin is pale or bluish, or is cold or clammy, get help.

  • Check the person’s breathing. If it is irregular, or too slow or shallow (less than eight breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths), get help.

If you discover any of the above problems, stay with the person and call 911. It is important to contact emergency services quickly. If you aren’t sure what to do, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Get help if you suspect an alcohol overdose, even if the person is underage.

The recovery position

If someone passes out from drinking too much, you can help by putting them in the recovery position. The most important thing is to keep the person’s airway open so fluids like vomit can drain from their mouth.

1. Raise the person’s closest arm above their head. Prepare the person to roll toward you.

2. Gently roll the person’s entire body toward you. Guard their head while you roll them.

3. Tilt the person’s head to keep their airway open. Tuck their nearest hand under their cheek to help keep their head tilted.

4. Do not leave the person alone. Stay with them until help arrives.


Drug Overdose

Overdose is a fairly common, but preventable, cause of injury and death among drug users, especially among people who inject drugs. In Canada, it is estimated that there are between 500 and 1,000 overdose deaths per year. Unintentional overdose is the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States (after automobile crashes).

A person overdoses when the level of a drug or a combination of drugs in their body is so high that it becomes toxic, and their body responds like it would to any other poison. Many drugs that are not harmful in small amounts are poisonous in large amounts. Depressants (such as opiates, and benzodiazepines) slow down the central nervous system, which results in slow breathing, and changes in blood pressure and heart rate. An overdose of depressants can slow breathing to the point of loss of consciousness, coma, or death. Stimulants (like speed, cocaine or ecstasy) have the opposite effect, and can result in seizure, stroke, heart attack and death.

An overdose can have different signs depending on the drug(s) involved. Some signs of a drug overdose are:

  • Very slow breathing (or no breathing at all)

  • Cold skin

  • Lips and nails turning blue

  • Throwing up

  • Seizures

  • Chest pains

  • Loss of consciousness (and you can’t wake the person up)


Tips for preventing a drug overdose
  • Don’t use drugs alone. Then, if there’s a problem, you can help each other out.

  • Know your source and ask around about quality and purity. Make sure you know what you’re getting and how strong it is.

  • Do “test shots” (smaller amounts than usual). You can always do more; you can’t do less.

  • Start using in small amounts if you haven’t used for a while. Many people OD when they start using after a break because their tolerance is low.

  • Be careful if you have liver problems or Hepatitis C. It’s harder for your body to get rid of drugs and it’s easier to OD.

  • Know the risks of mixing drugs. You are more likely to OD if you use more than one type of downer at a time or mix downers with alcohol.

  • Avoid “speedballing” (using opiates and cocaine together). You can have a delayed overdose once the cocaine wears off.

  • Don’t use methadone that has not been prescribed for you. A small dose of methadone can kill you if you don’t have enough tolerance, or if you take it with other downers.

  • For those who use depressant drugs, like heroin, avoid using other drugs, especially sedatives or alcohol, on the same day.


What to do if somebody is overdosing on drugs

If you are present when someone overdoses, act quickly but try not to panic.

1. Call 911 if the person:

  • Won’t wake up, can’t stay awake, or isn’t breathing,

  • Has a seizure, or

  • Has chest pains.

2. Breathe for them if they aren’t breathing. Follow these steps:

  • Make sure there is nothing in their mouth;

  • Tilt their head back;

  • Give them a breath every five seconds.

3. Roll them into the recovery position if they are passed out. This prevents problems like choking on vomit or their tongue.

4. Stay with them until help comes. If you can’t stay, write down what drugs the person took, and leave it with them so they can get the right help.

What NOT to do if somebody is overdosing on drugs
  • Don’t leave them alone

  • Don’t put them in a shower or cold bath

  • Don’t leave them on their back

  • Don’t smack, hit or hurt them to try and bring them around

  • Don’t give them other drugs

  • Don’t inject them with salt water

All of these things will make the situation worse.


To get help anywhere in British Columbia, call Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service 1-800-663-1441 (throughout BC) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver)

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