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What is an Overdose?

By Greer Hed
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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In the case of prescription or over-the-counter drugs, a drug overdose occurs when an individual takes more than the recommended therapeutic dosage of a drug. With illegal drugs taken to become intoxicated, a drug overdose occurs when the body's metabolism is unable to prevent the drug from building to toxic levels. Overdoses may be intentional or accidental. In both cases, they can lead to side effects that are harmful or even fatal. The symptoms and treatment vary depending on what drug or drugs have been ingested.

Drug overdoses can involve any type of drug, although it tends to be more common with illicit drugs because there is no recommended safe dosage. Often, the crisis involves the ingestion of multiple drugs that counter-indicate each other. Some individuals may have a lower tolerance for certain types of drugs, which can lead to taking too much, even if the recommended dosage is taken.

Accidental overdose occurs most often in young children between the ages of two and five, but it can affect individuals of any age group. Children may unknowingly take drugs that are not intended for them, or may ingest too many vitamins or supplements by accident. In older children and adults, accidental over-medication may occur when drugs have been over-prescribed by a physician, or when the adult is not aware of the active ingredients in a particular medication. With illicit drugs, accidental overdoses may occur because the drugs are more potent than expected. Intentional overdose is most prevalent among young adults in their teens to early 30s, but it may be attempted by any individual wishing to self-harm or commit suicide.

Generally, taking too much of a drug cause changes in the vital signs, increasing or decreasing body temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. The specific symptoms vary, depending on the drug ingested, however. For instance, amphetamine can cause chest pain, elevated blood pressure, and amphetamine psychosis, a temporary condition that usually only occurs with extremely high doses. Overdoses caused by opioids, such as heroin or morphine, may cause coma, dilated pupils, and a depressed respiratory rate, as well as confusion, shock, fluid in the lungs, and abnormally low blood pressure and heart rate. Symptoms of aspirin overdose can include nausea and vomiting, pain in the abdomen, increased body temperature and respiratory rate, hallucinations, seizure, swelling of the brain, and coma.

Medical professionals need to know which drugs were taken in order to effectively treat this crisis. Common courses of treatment include pumping the stomach to remove drugs that have not yet been absorbed by the digestive system, or the administration of activated charcoal, a porous substance that absorbs the drugs, allowing them to be harmlessly excreted. Some cases may require a specific antidote to counteract the effects of the drug. Kidney dialysis or chelation may be necessary in some circumstances to remove the toxins from the patient's system.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Mar 06, 2014

@Ruggercat68-- I agree with you.

My neighbor's son attempted suicide with an NSAID pain reliever (same group as aspirin). He didn't die but he lost his liver! His liver failed because it could not deal with all the drugs. He had to get a liver transplant. He caused a lot of pain and worry for himself and his family and friends.

You are right, I wish more people knew that overdosing will not cause death. It will damage organs and cause the person to suffer. I don't think that's the intention of anyone who wants to end their life. This is not right.

By SarahGen — On Mar 05, 2014

@turquoise-- Good question. I'm not a doctor so you might want to ask your doctor or perhaps a pharmacist.

As far as I know, there are different opinions on whether it's possible to overdose on vitamins and minerals. It mostly depends on whether these vitamins are water soluble or not.

Water soluble vitamins and minerals are not stored in the body. The body uses what it needs and then excretes the excess through urine. So technically, it should not be possible to overdose on water soluble vitamins and vitamin C is water soluble. I say "should" because I believe that even water soluble vitamins and minerals can become toxic for the body in very high doses. This type of overdose won't be as dangerous as overdose on fat soluble vitamins. But it can still cause negative side effects for a while.

I too have experienced this type of toxicity, from magnesium. I took too much of a magnesium supplement and became ill like you. I had a headache, nausea, vomiting and confusion. It certainly was not normal.

So regardless of what type of supplement or medication you're taking, never take more than directed. Remember that the foods we eat contain vitamins and minerals as well.

By turquoise — On Mar 04, 2014

Is it possible to experience overdose from vitamin or mineral supplements?

I'm taking a vitamin C supplement and today after taking it, I developed nausea and vomiting. Does this mean that I overdosed?

By Ruggercat68 — On Mar 03, 2014

I think it's a good idea for the medical community to keep overdose levels for common medications as secret as possible. Sometimes people will deliberately try to overdose on OTC medications like aspirin or cold medicines and get very sick, but not die. Fortunately, few people know exactly how many aspirin tablets to take in order to reach a point of no return medically. It's not easy to overdose on many OTC drugs, since manufacturers deliberately keep the dosages weak. I get more concerned when a depressed teen has access to his or her parent's prescription medications.

By Buster29 — On Mar 03, 2014

When I was a child, my mother accidentally gave me an overdose of liquid cold medicine, and I was unconscious for nearly 18 hours. All she could do was wait for the medication to wear off. An adult may have been able to handle that much medication, but it was a toxic dose for a 5 year old. I think that's an important lesson to learn. What might be a safe dose for one person can be an overdose to someone else.

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