Prescription Drug Overdose

A prescription drug overdose can be a deadly issue. Read on to learn more.

Prescription Drug Abuse

In 2020, over 16 million people reported abusing prescription drugs, with over 3% abusing prescription pain relievers.1 Prescription drug abuse can either be intentional or accidental due to misuse. However, whether intentional or not, prescription drug abuse can increase the risk for several illnesses and conditions, including overdose.2
Prescription Drug Overdose


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What Is Accidental Prescription Drug Overdose?

Accidental prescription drug overdose occurs when too large of a substance is consumed or injected. This can occur either because of improperly reading directions included with a medication or, in the instance of an infant or child, mistaking medication for candy and consuming it.
Prescription drug overdoses can also occur when substances are combined. This is commonly caused by a lack of understanding of what substances can or can’t be combined and not informing the prescribing medical health provider of other medications being regularly taken.

In less common cases, a chronic prescription drug overdose can occur after a long period of accidental prescription drug abuse.

Who Is At Risk?

A prescription drug overdose can occur to anyone whenever a prescription is misused or abused. However, there are several instances where misuse, abuse, and overdose are more common. This includes infants and the elderly and those treating mental illness or physical injury.
In the latter groups, overdose is more common due to misuse for self-treatment. This often occurs when symptoms of illness or injury outweigh the impacts of medicine.

Symptoms of a Prescription Drug Overdose

Whether intentional or accidental, a prescription drug overdose is a medical emergency. Recognizing the signs and symptoms is vital in identifying an overdose and receiving immediate medical attention.

The symptoms of a prescription drug overdose can include:

  • Mental changes
  • Emotional changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions of grandeur
  • Shallow breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Convulsions

How You Can Prevent Prescription Drug Overdose

You can prevent a prescription drug overdose by taking the proper steps to ensure appropriate management, usage, and storage.

Develop a Pain Management Plan

A pain management plan is a schedule of doses to ensure that medication is taken when it’s supposed to be taken. Each plan is drafted with the individual and their pain in mind, creating an effective plan for treatment while also helping reduce the likelihood of misuse or overdose.
When creating a pain management plan, a provider will conduct a pain assessment to determine the frequency, severity, and type of pain. From there, the individual and the provider will establish goals for pain management and draft the plan.
Reviews and revisions are often necessary to ensure continued effective, safe treatment.

Store Prescription Drugs Securely

Prescription drug overdoses are common in infants who accidentally access medications. Ensure that all prescription drugs are properly stored and secured where they can’t easily access them.

Properly Dispose Medications After Treatment

In some instances, there may be additional medication left after treatment. The best way to safely dispose of the remaining medication is through a drug take-back program. There are also steps and methods to properly dispose of medication at home.

Avoid Taking Higher Doses

Only take the dose prescribed. Higher doses introduce higher risks for misuse and overdose, especially when taken without the guidance of a medical professional.

Avoid Alcohol and Mixing Drugs

While many people may know to avoid mixing substances, such as certain ADHD medications with certain decongestants, it can be easy to forget that alcohol is also a substance to avoid mixing. Alcohol is a depressant known for its ability to slow bodily processes. Not only can this have an adverse reaction when combined with medication, but it can also impair cognition and result in too high of a dose.

Treatment for Prescription Drug Addiction

As many as 16 million individuals over age twelve abuse prescription drugs each year. When prescription drug abuse is intentional, it can lead to a substance use disorder or addiction. At least 12% of the 16 million individuals who abuse prescription drugs will develop an addiction each year.3

Prescription drug addiction increases the presence and severity of health risks and can result in overdose or other medical emergencies. However, many side effects can be reversed with proper treatment, and day-to-day quality of life can be restored.

Treatment for Prescription drug addiction


Detoxification, or detox, is when the body can metabolize and eliminate substances from the body fully. The time in which this takes can depend on several factors, including:

  • Medication(s) used
  • Duration
  • Frequency
During detox, the individual may experience what is known as withdrawal. These are physical or psychological symptoms that come with stopping the use of a substance. Since the body adapts to the presence of these substances, it will need time to return to its natural state, which can cause a reduction in brain chemicals.

Detoxing may involve medication, whether to help manage withdrawal symptoms or reduce the impact of the abused substance on the body.4

Inpatient Care

Inpatient care involves either a short-term or long-term stay at a rehabilitation facility, though a short-term stay is most common. This provides around-the-clock care in a setting removed from the stress and triggers of daily life, allowing for recovery. Inpatient care often evolves into outpatient care once an individual leaves the program.

Outpatient Care

Outpatient care allows individuals to attend sessions and meet their recovery needs with anonymity and access to a routine that inpatient care may not provide. This also allows the individual to apply new coping mechanisms and techniques in daily life.


There are many forms of therapy available as a prescription drug addiction treatment method. Some of the most utilized forms are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectic behavioral therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy