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Published: 10 November 2010

Non-fatal opioid overdoses

Studies report that the majority of opioid users (typically 50–6 %) have survived an overdose, and that  % to 1 % had had an overdose in the last six months, with some users having overdosed more than once. For each drug-induced death, it is estimated that there are 20 to 25 non-fatal overdoses. The number of non-fatal overdoses occurring every year in Europe cannot be estimated with precision, as monitoring is very limited and definitions may vary between countries. Nevertheless, the available information suggests that there could be between 120 000 and 175 000 non-fatal overdoses every year in Europe.

Surviving an overdose greatly increases the risk of dying from a later overdose (Stoové et al., 2009). Furthermore, non-fatal overdoses can cause a wide range of morbidity, including pulmonary impairment, pneumonia and muscular impairment. Overdoses may also lead to neurological damage, and the number of overdoses experienced is a significant predictor of poorer cognitive performance. Overall morbidity is likely to be greater among older, more experienced and dependent users (Warner-Smith et al., 2001).

Early recognition that an opioid overdose is occurring and the intervention of emergency services can be essential to preventing a fatal outcome. Contact with the emergency services, as well as giving treatment for acute poisoning, presents an opportunity to receive information on overdose prevention and referral for counselling and treatment.

Monitoring non-fatal overdoses can allow cross-validation of information on drug-related deaths. In the Czech Republic, for example, hospitalisation for non-fatal opioid overdoses decreased between 2001 and 2008, reflecting the decrease of opioid deaths. At the same time, the numbers of non-fatal overdoses and deaths related to methamphetamine use increased.

Stoové, M.A., Dietze, P.M. and Jolley, D. (2009), ‘Overdose deaths following previous non-fatal heroin overdose: record linkage of ambulance attendance and death registry data’, Drug and Alcohol Review 28, pp. 347–52.

Warner-Smith, M., Darke, S., Lynskey, M. and Hall, W. (2001), ‘Heroin overdose: causes and consequences’, Addiction 96, pp. 1113–25.

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The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU’s decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Monday, 18 October 2010