How to Recognize an Opioid Overdose


What are opioids? 

Opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce pain. This includes prescription opioids which doctors prescribe to treat moderate to severe pain (e.g., oxycodone [OxyContin®], hydrocodone [Vicodin®], morphine, and methadone); fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever; and heroin, an illegal drug. Opioid misuse can lead to dependence, addiction, overdose, and even death.

There is a growing number of overdoses and deaths caused by fentanyl, heroin, and prescription opioids. The number of people who died from a drug overdose in 2021 was over six times the number in 1999. In fact, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with opioids being the most common drug. The effects of the opioid epidemic have become a public health crisis for patients, their families, and the nation as a whole.

The most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths include:

  • Methadone

  • Oxycodone (such as OxyContin®)

  • Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin®)

What is an overdose? 

An opioid overdose occurs when too much of the drug causes a person’s breathing to slow or stop. This can lead to permanent brain damage or death. An opioid overdose can occur when a person:

Misuses prescription opioids.

Combines opioids with alcohol and/or other drugs and medications.

Uses illegal opioids, such as heroin, or drugs that are contaminated with more potent drugs (e.g., fentanyl).

Misunderstands the directions for use or an error is made by the pharmacist, resulting in the incorrect dosage being taken.

Recognize an opioid overdose

Prescription pain relievers, when used correctly and under a doctor’s supervision, are safe and effective. Abusing them, or mixing them with other drugs or alcohol, can be fatal. Symptoms of overdose include the following:

  • Slow breathing (less than 10 breaths a minute)

  • Small, pinpoint pupils

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness

  • Weakness

  • Cold and clammy skin

  • Apathy

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Seizures

  • Sleepiness, nodding off, or passing out


Even using prescription pain relievers with other prescription drugs (such as antidepressants) or with over-the-counter medications (such as cough syrups and antihistamines) can lead to life-threatening respiratory failure.

What are withdrawals? 

Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person stops or reduces their use of a drug. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on which drug was used, how much, how often, and for how long. 

Prescription opioids: Withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety and cold flashes, may occur when the opioid is stopped.

Fentanyl: Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, may occur when the drug is stopped.

Heroin: Severe withdrawal symptoms, such as sleep problems, diarrhea, and muscle pain, may occur when the drug is stopped.

Finding support

Opioid addiction is complex and affects all aspects of a person’s life. No single treatment method is right for everyone. For many, it is a long-term process that involves multiple interventions and regular monitoring. For more information or to find other health and wellness-related guides, visit the QuickSeries™ library.