Recovery is possible, even after such a traumatic event as an overdose, and an annual national observance serves as a powerful reminder that hope abides.

September is National Recovery Month, a national observance dedicated to educating Americans about evidence-based treatment and recovery practices and demonstrating that those in recovery can live productive, healthy lives. As part of that observance, New Vitae Wellness and Recovery is proud to join with other like-minded organizations throughout the Lehigh Valley to help sponsor the Sept. 12, 2021, Rally in the Valley, which celebrates recovery as a community concept.

As we mark the 32nd annual observance of National Recovery Month, the U.S. opioid crisis continues to plague individuals and families across the country. Over the past 18 months, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that drug overdose deaths have increased during the global coronavirus pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has traumatized our nation and the world, its impact on young adults has been particularly severe.

Those who have lost their lives recently to an overdose are, sadly, far from alone. Since 1999, more than 840,000 people have died in the United States from a drug overdose. Still, those who survive an overdose have a fighting chance at addiction recovery, especially if they have access to a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

Fast Facts About Overdoses

An overdose can occur when a level of a drug, or a combination of drugs, overwhelms the body. The amount of substance required to cause an overdose will depend upon numerous factors, including the individual’s substance-use history, the drug used, the person’s health status, and their age.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, opioid misuse and related overdoses affect the lives of millions of Americans. More than 10 million people ages 12 and older misused opioids in the past year, and approximately 1.6 million people were categorized as having an opioid use disorder. In 2019 alone, the CDC reported that more than 70,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses, and more than 7 out of 10 of those deaths could be attributed to an opioid.

However, for every drug overdose that results in a fatality, there are many more in which the individual lives. Knowing the warning signs of a drug overdose can improve a person’s chances of survival, offering them an opportunity for recovery.

The symptoms of an overdose generally will depend on the substance used.

When a person overdoses on a stimulant, such as cocaine or ecstasy, they can be at risk of seizure, stroke, heart attack or death. Common symptoms include rapid breathing, as well as increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.

When the overdose involves opioids, the most common signs include:

  • Very small pupils, sometimes constricted to pinpoints
  • Unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow respiration
  • Gurgling, snore-like or choking sounds
  • Limp arms and legs
  • Inability to speak
  • Vomiting
  • Clammy, cold or blue/gray skin

In the case of opioid use, which may include prescription medications (such as hydrocodone, morphine or oxycodone) or illicit drugs (such as heroin or illegally produced fentanyl), anyone can be at risk of an overdose. However, certain factors may increase the likelihood that an overdose will occur, including:

  • Being older than 65
  • Combining opioids with alcohol or other substances
  • Taking more opioids than a prescription indicates
  • Using illegally manufactured substances of unknown origin
  • Certain pre-existing medical conditions, such as liver or kidney issues or sleep apnea

Steps to Take if You Suspect an Overdose

If you suspect that someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, you can take a number of steps to help them. It may be difficult to determine whether a person is high, overdosing or experiencing some other form of medical emergency. However, the most important thing you should do immediately is to call 911 to ensure the person receives the emergency medical assistance they need.

After you call 911, these are the recommended steps to take next if you think someone has overdosed:

  • Stay with the person to monitor their condition. If they vomit, lay the person on their side with their hand supporting their head and their mouth facing downward.
  • Perform rescue breathing if the person is not breathing and perform CPR if the person does not have a pulse.
  • Administer Narcan (generic name is naloxone), if available.

Opioid overdose can be reversible in many situations if the individual receives properly administered naloxone, an opioid antagonist that attaches to opioid receptors and reverses and blocks the effects of other opioids in the body. Naloxone can be administered via nasal spray or injection, and it will not have any effect on a person who does not have opioids in their system.

Naloxone is ineffective for drug overdoses relating to other drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. In Pennsylvania specifically, Standing Order DOH-016-2021 ensures that residents who are at risk of experiencing an opioid-related overdose — as well as their family members, friends and other people in a position to assist a person at risk of an opioid overdose — may obtain a prescription for naloxone.

In many cases, bystanders to an overdose may be reluctant to seek assistance from law enforcement out of fear that doing so will implicate them in drug-related crimes or for parole violation. However, most states, including Pennsylvania, have Good Samaritan laws that protect those who are trying to secure help. In 2014, Pennsylvania enacted Act 139, which provides limited immunity from criminal prosecution for people who report or experience overdoses.

Recovery After Overdose: A New Lease on Life

When choosing a provider for treatment after an overdose, it is critical to select a program that can provide an approach tailored to your unique situation. At New Vitae Wellness and Recovery, we use what is known as the Recovery Model, a service framework that emphasizes the value of hope and the importance of self-directed services. We identify and utilize each individual’s personal strengths in order to help them take the steps toward achieving their goals for recovery.

For example, research shows that recovery from substance use problems and overdose is more achievable when an individual combines effective medications, a stable support system, and professional counseling. In a medication-assisted treatment plan, the program includes medications — such as methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine — that curb a person’s opioid cravings and allow them to focus on their recovery.

New Vitae Wellness and Recovery combines its recovery support services into the most appropriate plan for each person. We can provide:

Other resources include:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

If you are in crisis, call 911.