Prescription-related overdoses have reached epidemic proportions over the past few decades.  Perhaps more frightening still is that many of these are accidental. How many pills does it take to overdose? The amount is probably less than you think. Medical advancements continue to make medications stronger and more effective, but this increased potency puts even the most obedient of patients at greater risk of developing an addiction and consequently, overdosing. 

What Makes Prescription Pills Dangerous?

On any given day it is estimated that over 100 people die of a drug overdose – many of which are caused by prescription drugs. Overdoses occur when a person’s metabolism cannot detoxify a drug fast enough, causing there to be too much of a substance in the body for it to handle. It doesn’t matter how simple the medical need (a headache, menstrual cramps, a fever) or how common the medication is, all drugs carry some sort of risk and prescription pills are no exception. 

The primary danger lies in taking multiple medications at once, where the active ingredients can quickly create a toxic buildup that would otherwise be harmless. Another danger is that many of these medications have a significant half-life (the time it takes for them to process out of your body). Consuming alcohol (or sometimes just grapefruit juice) can negatively interact with whatever compounds are still in your system and cause adverse reactions.

Common Pills People Overdose On

Some of the common pills that cause overdoses are the ones that generate the least concern. They are often underestimated in their ability to become habit-forming and aren’t given due consideration when it comes to taking multiple medications at once. This lax attitude has led to a misconception that most medications are harmless, but in reality, any substance can cause an overdose. There are three particular classifications of drugs that most frequently result in pill overdoses – several of these are likely to be familiar to you.

Pain Relievers (Non-Opioid)

Acetaminophen is the culprit of the majority of seemingly-mundane pill overdoses. This ingredient can be found in over 600 prescription and OTC drugs and is likely in the majority of items in your medicine cabinet. Well-known brand name medications with acetaminophen are Tylenol, Alka-Seltzer Plus, DayQuil, NyQuil, Excedrin, Mucinex, Robitussin, Sudafed, Theraflu, and Vicks. 

Because so many medications use this ingredient, following each pill’s instructions can still result in too much being in your system. The recommended limit is 3,000 mg of single-ingredient acetaminophen a day, and taking more than 7,000 mg or more can result in an overdose.

Anticholinergic Drugs

This category includes generic medications like atropine, scopolamine, belladonna, and broader groups such as antihistamines, antipsychotics, and sleep aids. The most common cause of an anticholinergic overdose, however, is caused by antihistamines such as Benadryl. Diphenhydramine is one of the active ingredients and has a particularly long half-life of 2-3 days. This creates a high potential for toxic buildup in the body even when the recommended dosage is followed. It can be found in many common nighttime cold relief medications such as Advil PM, Aleve PM, Excedrin PM, and Motrin PM. Fortunately, an overdose is rarely fatal.

Synthetic Opioids

Opioid painkillers are considered a controlled substance and are therefore much harder to get your hands on. Despite this, they are the leading cause of both accidental and intentional pill overdoses and have heralded the third wave of the current opioid epidemic. Fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and to a lesser extent, methadone, alprazolam, diazepam, and morphine are the most commonly cited opioids in instances of an overdose. In addition to having a significant half-life, they are also highly addictive which can exponentially increase the already high likelihood of causing toxicity.  

Factors That Affect the Risk of a Pill Overdose

While preventing a prescription pill overdose is not a clear-cut process, understanding the circumstances in which it happens can go a long way to prevent an unnecessary tragedy. The likelihood of a prescription pill overdose can vary on a broad range of factors making it a very unique circumstance from person to person. 

White, middle-aged men have the highest likelihood of experiencing a prescription drug overdose. Pre-existing mental health issues also increase the probability as does a low income. Simultaneous use of multiple prescription drugs (particularly opioid analgesics and benzodiazepines) and high doses of other prescriptions can significantly impact the risk factor as well. Environmental factors find that rural communities tend to lead to higher risks of pill overdose as well.

Related Article: Signs of a Drug Overdose

Getting Help for Pill Addiction

Regardless of a medication’s intention, all drugs have the potential to be misused. No matter how “harmless” a pill may seem, taking too many, too quickly of anything can quickly go south. Increased pill medication strength, underestimation of addiction risk, liberal prescribing practices, and the commonality of individuals taking multiple medications at once have created a perfect storm for not just overdose, but for ongoing addiction as well. 

Even if an overdose doesn’t occur, there can still be debilitating and long-lasting side effects that can disrupt lives and relationships. If you suspect that you or a loved one might need help for a pill addiction, contact us today to learn how we can help you.