The opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities across the globe, bringing with it a devastating increase in overdose incidents. At the Coleman Institute, we are committed to educating our community about the dangers of opioids and the critical importance of recognizing an overdose as it unfolds. Knowing the signs of an opioid overdose can mean the difference between life and death, making this knowledge essential for everyone, particularly those who have loved ones struggling with opioid addiction.

Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic

The opioid epidemic has seen a staggering loss of life, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting that over 932,000 people succumbed to drug overdoses between 1999 and 2020, and opioids were implicated in 75% of the drug overdose deaths in 2020 alone. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated this crisis, marking a grim milestone with over 81,000 overdose deaths in the year ending May 2020—the highest ever in a single 12-month period. Experts attribute this sharp increase to the pandemic's widespread impact, including heightened isolation, increased stress, and significant disruptions to drug treatment and recovery support services, illustrating how external societal factors can deeply influence public health crises.

Several key factors have contributed to the rise in opioid overdoses. The initial surge in opioid prescriptions dramatically increased the availability of these drugs, making them more accessible to both patients and recreational users, as well as those who might sell them on the illicit market. Opioids are known for their highly addictive properties, and individuals who start with prescribed medications can quickly develop dependencies. Once addicted, these individuals may seek out opioids in any form, including more dangerous illicit drugs like heroin or illegally manufactured fentanyl. In recent years, the increase of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, has further exacerbated the crisis. Often mixed with other drugs due to its potency and low cost, fentanyl increases the risk of overdose, particularly because users are frequently unaware of the drug's actual strength. Additionally, economic and social factors such as poverty, lack of healthcare, mental health issues, and economic despair contribute to higher drug use and addiction rates, further complicating the epidemic.

Recognizing the Signs of an Opioid Overdose

An opioid overdose can rapidly incapacitate a person, leading to potentially fatal consequences. It is crucial to recognize the signs of an overdose early and act immediately. Quick action can also mitigate longer-term complications for those who survive an overdose, emphasizing the life-saving importance of rapid and informed responses. Here are the primary indicators of an acute opioid overdose:

  • Loss of Consciousness: Unresponsiveness could indicate that a person has overdosed. If you call their name or lightly shake them and they do not wake up or respond, it’s a severe warning sign.
  • Shallow, Slow, or Stopped Breathing: One of the most dangerous symptoms of an opioid overdose is the depression of the respiratory system. This might look like slow, irregular breathing, or a complete stop in breathing.
  • Pinpoint Pupils: Also known as miosis, the constriction of pupils to a small pinpoint size can be a tell-tale sign of opioid overdose.
  • Choking Sounds or a Gurgling Noise: Sometimes referred to as a “death rattle,” these sounds indicate that air is struggling to get through respiratory passages.
  • Blue or Purple Lips and Fingernails: This is caused by hypoxia, which is the lack of oxygen to the body’s tissues, and is a direct result of slowed or stopped breathing.
  • Pale, Clammy Skin: Another sign of opioid overdose is cold and clammy skin that might appear bluish or purplish in lighter-skinned individuals and grayish or ashen in darker-skinned individuals.
  • Vomiting: In the event of an overdose, the body may react by vomiting, which can be dangerous if the individual is unconscious as it increases the risk of suffocation.
  • Limp Body: In cases of severe overdose, the body may become floppy and limp due to the relaxation of muscles.


What To Do If You Suspect an Opioid Overdose

If you observe any of the signs mentioned, it is crucial to act quickly. Every second counts, as the progression from overdose to a potentially life-threatening condition can occur rapidly. If you think someone is having an opioid overdose, here are the following steps to take to get them help as fast as possible:

  1. Call Emergency Services Immediately: Always call 911 if you suspect someone is overdosing. Provide clear and concise information about the situation and follow any instructions given by the dispatcher.
  2. Administer Naloxone if Available: Naloxone (Narcan) is a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose if administered in time. Many states have made naloxone available without a prescription, and we encourage everyone, especially those who have a loved one at risk for opioid overdose, to keep it accessible.
  3. Try to Keep the Person Awake and Breathing: Stimulate them by calling their name or gently shaking them if they are not awake. If they are able to swallow and breathe, lay them in the recovery position — on their side, with the top leg crossed over the body and the top arm supporting the head, keeping the airway open and clear.
  4. Stay With the Person Until Help Arrives: Monitoring the individual’s breathing and consciousness is crucial until emergency services take over.

Getting Into Detox and Avoiding Opioid Overdose

Early intervention can save lives, and understanding how to spot the signs of an opioid overdose and how to respond can make all the difference. However, preventing an overdose is always preferable to treating one. Here are some steps that can be taken to help prevent an opioid overdose:

  • Educate Yourself and Others: Awareness and knowledge are powerful tools in combating the opioid crisis.
  • Follow Prescriptions Carefully: If you or a loved one are prescribed opioids, take them exactly as directed by a healthcare professional.
  • Dispose of Unused Medication: Many incidents of misuse and overdose start with medications that were left unsecured. Dispose of opioids that are no longer needed.
  • Get Support: For those struggling with dependence or addiction, seeking help can be the most crucial step.
At the Coleman Institute, we understand that opioid addiction and its potential for overdose is a difficult reality. If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid dependence or addiction, our Accelerated Opiate Detox program may be the answer. Contact our team of care advocates in our Richmond, VA, office or call one of our nationwide clinics near you to learn more about the Coleman Method and get into detox today.