August 29, 2023

Preventing overdoses starts with education

Risk factors are not always associated with addiction or substance abuse. Knowing what they are can help save lives.

By taking certain preventive measures with potentially addictive medications in our homes, we can all help reduce the risk of drug overdoses.

The number of overdose deaths in the United States continues an upward climb. In 2021, the last year for which national data is available, 106,699 people (about the seating capacity of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) in the United States died from drug overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). That was more than 5 times the number who died from overdoses 20 years ago. 

Know the risk factors

While addiction to and misuse of prescription and illicit drugs are obvious overdose risk factors, accidental overdoses can occur among people without a history of either, said Ingrid A. Binswanger, MD, internal medicine, Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. These factors include:

  • Taking high medication doses
  • Taking multiple medications
  • Using drugs with alcohol
  • Using prescribed drugs again after stopping for a while
  • Experiencing major life transitions, such as being discharged from inpatient treatment programs or being released from prison

And some things can make it harder to get treatment for substance use problems, like factors experts call social health needs, including economic, housing, and food insecurity; lack of access to health care; and unstable social, neighborhood, and community environments, Dr. Binswanger said.

Recognize the symptoms of addiction

Recognizing the symptoms of addiction in yourself or others — and seeking help — is also key to reducing the risk of overdoses, Dr. Binswanger said. Common signs of dependence or addiction include:

  • Taking more medication than needed and for longer periods of time than prescribed
  • Not being able to reduce use after trying
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about, trying to get, or using a substance
  • Needing to use more to achieve desired results
  • Experiencing negative impacts on personal relationships
  • Experiencing poor performance at school, work, or in other aspects of daily life
  • Taking risks such as driving under the influence
  • Continuing to use a substance despite developing negative health effects from it

“Anyone who has concerns about substance use for themselves or people they care about should not hesitate to contact their doctor for a consultation — we have medications that can help,” Dr. Binswanger said. “We encourage people who are struggling with substances to seek chemical dependency treatment services even if they haven’t developed a serious problem.” 

Help keep others safe

Another key to overdose prevention is keeping opioids and similar drugs in safe, secure places like medication lockboxes so children, friends, family, and even pets can’t get to them. Get rid of old, unused medication. In April and October every year, the Drug Enforcement Administration encourages people to take their medications to collection sites across the country as part of National Drug Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Take-back boxes are also available at most Kaiser Permanente pharmacies.

Dr. Binswanger also recommends that if you know or suspect that someone in your home is using opioids or other drugs, you should keep naloxone or a Narcan kit in your house. Naloxone is a medicine that reverses the effects of an opioid emergency and is available at Kaiser Permanente pharmacies.

It's not just opioids and fentanyl

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl have attracted media coverage recently because they have accounted for more overdose deaths in the United States than any other category of drug since 2016 — and by a growing margin, says NIDA. In 2021, they accounted for more than 60% of fatal overdoses. However, there are several other drugs that account for a significant number of overdose deaths, including:

  • Antidepressants
  • Prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone) 
  • Benzodiazepines (often called tranquilizers; taken to reduce tension and anxiety) 
  • Psychostimulants (primarily methamphetamine)   
  • Cocaine  
  • Heroin 

More resources

If you’re struggling with alcohol or drugs, get the help you need in a safe, judgment-free environment.

Learn about reducing your risk of opioid overdose and Naloxone Rescue Kits.