An overdose is the use of an excessive amount of a drug, alcohol, or other substance, to the point where your brain and bodily functions are affected. Since severe drug overdoses can lead to death, they are generally considered medical emergencies. The body is, in effect, in toxic shock. It may not always be easy to recognize when this stage has been reached because an alcohol or opioid overdose can often look like mere intoxication or a drug-induced high, particularly in a subject with a history of substance abuse. But in case of doubt, it is always best to call emergency services and place yourself (if you are the person using) or the unwell person in the hands of professional medics.
This will depend on several parameters, first and foremost, what drug or combination of substances a person has consumed and in what quantities. Recovery time will also be affected by their age, general state of health, medical history, a record of use or abuse of addictive substances, any medications they may be on, and their body's degree of resilience to drugs at the overdose. Finally, in severe cases, it will depend on how long a person remains in a critical condition before the arrival of medical help. Sadly, complete recovery may be difficult if lasting damage has been done.
In the absence of severe damage to inner organs or the brain, a person may manage to recover within days or a few weeks at most. But some symptoms, particularly after an opioid overdose, may take much longer to heal.
In the unfortunate case of an intentional overdose, the cause is the deliberate action of the subject, who will be well advised to seek a mental health evaluation. This will determine what psychiatric care is appropriate to treat their substance use disorder and the life-threatening impulses it leads to.
In the case of unintentional overdoses, the cause is often a loss of control; the person, in many cases already under the influence of alcohol or drugs, is no longer conscious of the quantities they are using or of the time elapsed since their last medication.
Experimenting with new drugs, or combining substances, can cause overdoses because the individual may not know the exact potency of what they are taking or how their body will react. Using after a long period of abstinence can also be a risk because a person's tolerance will decrease.
On a deeper level, mental illnesses such as chronic depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other issues may put someone in danger of an overdose. In their desire to escape their psychological and emotional pain, they may pay less attention to how much they use or take a large dose of a substance to ensure they achieve the degree of relief they are after.
While it’s important to ask, “How long does it take to recover after overdose,” it’s equally important to understand the risks involved. Several factors can increase the risk of an overdose, including:
Polydrug use: Mixing different types of drugs can enhance their effects and increase the risk of overdose. For example, combining opioids and alcohol can depress the central nervous system, causing slowed breathing, unconsciousness, or even death.
Previous history of overdose: People who have overdosed in the past are more likely to do so again in the future.
Lowered tolerance: After a period of abstinence, the body's tolerance for the substance decreases. If the same amount of substance is then used as before the break, an overdose can occur.
Mental health disorders: People with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety are more likely to misuse substances, putting them at a higher risk of overdose.
While some symptoms can be relieved rapidly - a Naloxone injection, for example, can alleviate the effects of an opioid overdose - other symptoms can persist for weeks or months. Common ones are:
Again, this depends on the substance that triggers the overdose; however, generally, 1 - 3 hours is the duration beyond which survival is unlikely in the case of an opioid overdose. In the absence of actual cardiac arrest or respiratory failure, the window for medical intervention may be a little longer.
There is no exact answer to this question, as it depends on many factors. However, if a drug is injected directly into the bloodstream, the overdose - the adverse physiological reaction to the drug - may make itself felt almost instantaneously. If pills - prescription medications or illegal substances - are ingested, there is no hard-and-fast rule for how long it takes to overdose because people metabolize drugs at different rates.
Read more: How long does cocaine stay in your system
After an overdose, a range of symptoms that affect both cognitive and physical functions begin to appear. Opioids, benzodiazepines, stimulants, and alcohol all cause slightly different symptoms, but there are several common signs of an overdose. Some indicators of mental function impairment are:
In the best-case scenario, the effects wear off, and a person returns to a state closer to ordinary consciousness. Otherwise, first aid by paramedics and hospital treatment will be necessary.
After an overdose has occurred is also an excellent time to take stock, especially if it is the first overdose. A person would do well to question their degree of dependence on their drug of choice and be honest with themselves about the possibility they suffer from addiction. For those who know they are in recovery, and if relationship dynamics allow it, it is good to reach out to family members and talk through the situation and viable options to move forward.
Once again, this depends on the family of drugs the person overdoses on and the individual. What they feel also depends on how they are still consciously aware and present in their bodies - excessive alcohol, for example, can cause people to no longer know what they are doing or perceive the outside world lucidly. It can also inhibit their physical sensations, which is why they can fall over and hurt themselves, sometimes severely, without really realizing it.
A few bodily sensations familiar with opioid overdose are:
Common feelings that occur with cocaine or other stimulants are:
If you suspect you've overdosed, the most crucial step is to seek immediate medical attention. You should not attempt to "sleep it off" or wait for the effects to pass, as this could lead to permanent damage or even death. Try to remember the substance(s) consumed, the quantity, and the time of consumption, as these details can significantly help healthcare providers in their response. If possible, keep the substance packaging or any remaining substance for identification by medical personnel. Do your best to remain calm and avoid any further consumption of substances. And while you might be focused on questions like how long does it take to recover after overdose, be mindful that the most important issue is getting better one day at a time.
Because the answer to “How long does overdose take?” is different for everyone, you should go to the ER for an overdose as soon as you notice symptoms, whether you suspect an overdose or not. These signs may include but are not limited to extreme drowsiness, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, severe restlessness or agitation, hallucinations, seizures, and loss of consciousness. The appearance of any of these signs, especially when coupled with recent substance use, calls for an immediate trip to the ER. It's important to note that many overdoses occur slowly, so you might not notice the signs until hours after the substance is consumed. Never delay seeking help for an overdose — it's a life-threatening emergency where every second counts.
FDA-approved medication for immediate treatment of drug overdoses is mainly the drug Naltrexone and its derivatives. In injection form or as an emergency nasal spray, it can immediately reverse the effects of opioids. Other medications, such as Methadone, used in Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT) of Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), or Buprenorphine, are sometimes used as a substitute for Methadone and an addiction treatment medication in their own right to treat problematic substance use. They aim to help wean people from opioid use and prevent further overdoses.
Unfortunately, relapse after recovering from an overdose is quite common, underscoring the chronic nature of addiction. A medical study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2020 found that more than 60% of individuals hospitalized for an opioid overdose experienced a relapse within one year. This high relapse rate after an overdose indicates the severity of the addiction problem and the complexity of its treatment. It's important to note that a prior overdose significantly increases the risk of another, making sustained recovery support even more critical. As such, an overdose should be seen not only as a medical emergency but also as a critical juncture for initiating treatment for substance use disorder to prevent further instances and potential fatality.
Further treatment of drug overdoses will seek to address the habits which led a person to overdose in the first place. This may involve substance abuse treatment, behavioral therapy, or even ongoing medical care. Whether their using pattern is recreational or habitual, an overdose is a harsh wake-up call for most drug users. Many medical professionals view problematic drug use and addiction, and by the 12-step fellowships, as progressive. An overdose can signify that a dangerous barrier has been crossed and a precedent set. There is no shame in a person needing to receive psychiatric care to stack all the odds in their favor.
But an overdose can also be an opportunity to turn things around, redirect your life, and take responsibility for your future. At Cirque Lodge, we know that overdoses don't just happen out of the blue. We understand that they can be traumatic experiences and scary. All our programs are highly comprehensive and based on up-to-date, evidence-based modalities and approaches to treatment. If you or a loved one has suffered an overdose and declared, "Never again!", know that this is a realizable goal with the proper support.
Recovering from a drug overdose can be a life-changing experience. It often serves as a wake-up call and triggers the decision to seek help for substance abuse issues. This is often the first step toward recovery.
Rehabilitation facilities like Cirque Lodge help our clients learn how to recover from an overdose. We provide the necessary tools to help people regain control of their lives. Individuals can learn to manage their cravings, build resilience, and develop healthy coping mechanisms through personalized treatment programs, therapy sessions, and support groups.
While your end goal might be concentrated on answering the question, how long does it take to recover after overdose - remember, this is an ongoing journey. The life-affirming commitment to recovery after overdose may be long and challenging, but with the right support, it is absolutely possible. Remember, it's never too late to seek help and change your life positively.