Opioid Overdose and Narcotic Pain Medications

a tipped over bottle of oxycodone, illustrating opioid overdose

How do you recognize an opioid overdose? How many people die from opioids? Prescription opioids (otherwise known as narcotics) are a subcategory of analgesics, which are pharmaceuticals that relieve pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. Opioids can be dangerous if misused or abused. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids caused more than 42,000 deaths in 2016, the highest number of opioid-related-deaths to date.

Additionally, the CDC states nearly two million Americans were dependent on or abused prescription opioids in 2014. Each day, almost 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for using these drugs in a manner other than as directed. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis. The United States is in the midst of a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic, due at least in part to the over-prescribing of opiate medications by health care practitioners.

NPDS statistical analyses indicate that all analgesic exposures including opioids and sedatives are increasing year over year. This trend is shown in Table 17b and Figure 5 in the 2019 NPDS annual report. NPDS data mirror CDC data that demonstrates similar findings.

In the last 12 months, poison centers managed 50,410 opioid overdose and substances exposure cases.


Signs of Overdose

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint” pupils
  • Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Limp body and pale, blue, or cold skin

For the Media:

Please cite this data as “National Poison Data System, America’s Poison Centers.” Any and all print, digital, social, or visual media using this data must include the following: “You can reach your local poison center by calling Poison Help at 1-800-222-1222. To save the number in your mobile phone, text POISON to (301) 597-7137.”  Email Media@PoisonCenters.org or call 703-894-1863 for more information, questions, or to submit request data.

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