Redefining Drug Overdose

Everyone knows that only hardcore drug addicts overdose, right? Pills_Pic

Actually, this statement may be one of the most dangerous misconceptions driving the overdose epidemic in our country. In the United States, accidental overdose, which includes overdose due to alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription drugs, has now overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the number one cause of injury death (i.e. non-disease-related death, like falling or homicide). Opioid pain relievers, like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone currently account for more overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined. Prescribed for acute or chronic pain, these drugs provide relief for thousands of people. But, as with any drug, they carry the potential for abuse and overdose. In order to fight the growing overdose epidemic, we must challenge misconceptions about overdose victims.

As a Health Educator at UNC Campus Health, I have worked with college students who have experienced accidental overdose due to a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Many are smart, studious high achievers. Often they are taking prescription medicines as prescribed, unaware of the toxic effects of mixing their drugs with alcohol. They wake up in the hospital shocked and confused: “How could I have been so near death from just one pill?” one student asked me after taking a prescribed opioid and drinking a few beers.

But accidental overdose is not limited to young people. In fact, the mean age of overdose victims is 39, suggesting that older adults are overdosing just as much as younger populations.  I experienced this firsthand when I worked on a research project investigating falls in older adults. I encountered seniors who had accidentally taken too much of their medicines and ended up in the hospital from an overdose. Many were reluctant to talk about their experience out of shame or embarrassment, not realizing that many drug overdoses happen in this way.

Another group at higher risk for overdose is veterans. Soldiers suffer disproportionately from chronic pain, PTSD, and mental illness, and the medicines prescribed for these illnesses place them at higher risk for an overdose. Opioid pain reliever prescriptions among soldiers have increased from 30,000 to 50,000 since the Iraq war began, so it is no wonder our troops suffer four times more overdose deaths than their civilian counterparts.

So what can be done? Opioid pain relievers contribute disproportionately to the problem. A drug called naloxone can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, but because of naloxone’s prescription drug status, it must be administered by a doctor or self-administered. One option currently under discussion is expanding the law to allow overdose bystanders (i.e. friends and family) to administer the drug. Another way to reduce overdose deaths is through a 911 Good Samaritan Law, which would grant amnesty from any drug or alcohol related charges to a person calling 911 on behalf of an overdose victim. For the UNC students I work with, this could be a lifesaver, since so many of them avoid calling 911 for fear of getting in trouble.

These two efforts are part of an overdose prevention bill currently underway in the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). On February 5th, a policy summit will be held at the NCGA in Raleigh where these issues will be discussed more in depth. Drug overdose is not simply about addicts using illegal drugs (although this is an important population to consider). The prevalence of prescription drug use means that we must redefine what an overdose victim looks like: from the studious UNC student to the soldiers who risk their lives for our country.

It’s easy to feel powerless about these issues, especially from a policy standpoint. But, if you want to learn more about overdose or NC state politics, come to the FREE Policy Summit on February 5th in Raleigh. This is your chance to see politics in action and meet legislators and other folks who are working hard to prevent overdose in NC. The event is free, but you still need to register at

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