What Is an Overdose?

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An overdose (OD), or drug overdose, is when someone accidentally or intentionally consumes more than a safe or typical amount of a substance such as a prescription medication or drug. Knowing the signs and symptoms of an overdose and what to do if you think you or someone else may be overdosing is life-saving information.

This article will explain what an overdose is, the signs and symptoms of overdose to watch for in yourself and others, and what to do in case of an overdose.

Opioid pills

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What Is an Overdose?

An overdose is when a person consumes “over” the recommended or typical dose of a substance. An overdose can be accidental (i.e., you were prescribed a dose of medication, and your body does not handle it as expected), or it may be intentional. Intentional overdosing is perceived as suicidal behavior. 

In a 2020 study, 75% of overdose deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid, including 62% that involved a synthetic opioid other than methadone, such as fentanyl.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Signs and Symptoms

Do not leave it up to the person to tell you they are overdosing; they may not know or not be able to communicate it to you. When it comes to drug overdose, being proactive is essential to reversing overdose and preventing death. If you see these signs of overdose, do not abandon the person out of fear of getting in trouble.

These are the signs and symptoms of an opioid drug overdose:

  • Small, “pinpoint pupils”
  • Nodding off into sleep or losing consciousness
  • Slow, shallow, or labored breathing
  • Choking sounds or gurgling noises
  • Limp body
  • Pale, clammy, blue, or cold skin

If a person is overdosing on stimulants like cocaine, ecstasy, or methamphetamine, though, the signs and symptoms are different, and include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rising body temperature (hot, flush skin)
  • Rapid breathing

These symptoms of stimulant overdose can lead to a seizure, stroke, heart attack, or death.


Detecting an overdose may be difficult. If you suspect someone may be overdosing, do not leave them alone. Seek immediate medical help by calling 911 or taking them to an emergency unit. If you aren’t sure if someone is overdosing, it’s best to act as if they are by seeking emergency help. It could save a life.

Good Samaritan laws and similar legal protections exist across states to ensure you will not get into trouble for helping someone experiencing an overdose.

Naloxone (spray or auto-injectable) can reverse an opioid overdose, including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid medications. It works by blocking the effects of opioids. Administer the naloxone and then stay with the person until emergency services arrive on the scene, or for at least four hours to monitor if their breathing has gone back to normal.


Drug overdose is when a person ingests more the recommended, safe, or typical dose of a prescription medication, recreational drug, or illicit substance. It may happen accidentally or intentionally; both are emergencies. It can be difficult to determine if someone is overdosing, but erring on the side of caution can save a life. Drug overdose requires emergency help. Naloxone can be administered to reverse an opioid overdose. Always call 911 and never leave the person alone.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you or someone you may know is experiencing an overdose, the best thing you can do is treat it like an emergency. Afterward, you may experience many complicated emotions about the overdose, how you reacted, and what to do to prevent future overdoses. Know that medical and mental health community support is available, and you don’t need to go through this alone.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. University of Pennsylvania Health System. What all the words mean-a glossary.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Intentional vs unintentional overdose deaths.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC’s efforts to prevent overdoses and substance use-related harms – 2022-2024.

  4. CDC. Preventing opioid overdose.

  5. National Harm Reduction Coalition. Training guide: opioid overdose basics.

  6. Prescription Drug Abuse Policy System. Good Samaritan overdose prevention laws

  7. CDC. Life-saving naloxone.

By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.