Opioid Overdose and Medication for Addiction Treatment

Opioids are powerful drugs that have a high risk of abuse, which can often lead to an overdose or addiction.


Opioid Overdose

An overdose occurs when a person has taken too much of an opioid or mixed it with alcohol or other drugs. The signs and symptoms of an overdose include:

  • Loss of consciousness. There is no response to people or outside stimuli.
  • Breathing is slowed. Breathing is shallow, erratic, or has stopped all together.
  • Slow heartbeat or pulse. Heartbeat or pulse is erratic or slow.
  • Contracted pupils. The center, dark part of the eye is very small.
  • Fingernails and lips are blue. Lack of oxygen will cause the nails and lips to turn blue.

Not all of these will necessarily be present when a person is overdosing. All drugs can cause an overdose.

An opioid overdose is a medical emergency. Naloxone can be used to quickly reverse the effects of an overdose. In most states, naloxone is available without an individual prescription and can be administered by anyone. Ask your local pharmacist to find out more about how to obtain the drug. It is also carried by first responders, such as paramedics and police officers.

Medications Used in Opioid Detoxification and Addiction Treatment

Often times, treating opioid addiction and counteracting overdoses involve medications. These medications are described below.

With the exception of naloxone, the medications described below must be prescribed by a doctor and are often dispensed and taken in an inpatient detoxification or treatment facility. Doctors must have a special DEA license to administer methadone and buprenorphine. To obtain this license a doctor must go through a training course and application process.

  • Methadone is typically part of inpatient drug detoxification treatment programs, as it reduces withdrawal symptoms by relieving pain without causing the high associated with addiction. It comes in the form of a tablet, liquid, or injection.
  • Buprenorphine, at high doses, also reduces withdrawal symptoms. It can be prescribed on an outpatient basis, which increases treatment access. Buprenorphine comes in tablet, skin patch, and injectable form. When mixed with naloxone (Suboxone) it taken as an oral tablet or as a film placed under the tongue.
  • Naloxone (Narcan) is a short-acting opioid antagonist, which means it blocks the effects of opioids. It is a nasal spray and most often used in the acute setting to reverse an overdose or emergency. Naloxone is available without a prescription in most states.
  • Naltrexone is long-acting opioid antagonist and blocks the euphoric and sedative feeling associated with opioid use. It comes in the form of a tablet or injection. Naltrexone is different than methadone and buprenorphine; it is used after a drug detoxification program and may block opioid craving.

In summary, methadone (Dolophine), buprenorphine (Subutex) and Naltrexone (Vivitrol, ReVia) are drugs used in opioid detoxification and recovery. Only Narcan is meant for one-time usage.