What Happens When You Overdose on Pills?

Estimated reading time: 27 minute(s)

Medicines are strong chemicals that exert many positive benefits on the body but can simultaneously have different adverse physiological effects, especially when taken in the wrong amounts. Using these pills for reasons any other than the ones prescribed or accidentally using too much of them can trigger an overdose (OD). An overdose happens when a person overloads their body with pills, making it unable to function correctly and exerting short- and long-term side effects.

Thousands of people worldwide have died from overdosing on pills, and the numbers continue to rise with each passing day. Understanding what happens when you overdose on pills, how to pick up the signs of an OD, and what to do in the event of an overdose are some necessary things to keep in mind so that you can get timely help and save lives.

Understanding An Overdose

An overdose is when someone takes a toxic level of one or more substances, the effects of which interfere with their brain and body’s ability to work correctly. While pill overdoses are sometimes fatal, they may lead to several short- and long-term side effects when mortality is not imminent. The symptoms of an overdose can vary depending on the type of pills a person takes, and sometimes, it can be tough to differentiate between a milder and a life-threatening overdose.

An overdose can occur due to any types of pills, but the most common ones include the following:

How Can You Overdose on Pills?

Following are some factors that may push an individual into an overdose: [1]

Low drug tolerance

A person with a low threshold for drug tolerance is more likely to end up experiencing an OD on pills. This is especially true when their pills are powerful or their dose is too high. The risk of low drug tolerance is higher in people who have been abstinent for a long time.

Method of ingestion

For instance, dissolving a pill into water and injecting the solution in the veins is much more likely to cause an overdose than simply taking it through the mouth.

Mixing drugs

Taking different types of pills together can significantly increase the risk of an overdose. This is particularly true when the medications taken belong to the same drug class or have the same effects on the body.

Unknown strength of purity of pills

Many illegal pills on the streets are often mixed or cut with other substances. A user may consume them without knowing what exactly is in their composition. Moreover, because street drugs are not regulated like prescription pills, the chance of experiencing an overdose with them is higher.

Pre-existing mental health issues

People with depression are more likely to engage in fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Similarly, a history of other mental health illnesses, such as psychotic disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can also increase a person’s risk of an overdose.

Using pills alone

A person taking pills alone is much more likely to experience an overdose as there is no one with them to stop them or address their overdose symptoms as they appear.

Pre-existing physical health issues

Specific health issues, such as cardiovascular problems, can increase the dangers associated with an overdose.

What Happens When You Overdose on Pills? Symptoms Explained

What happens when you overdose on pills can vary depending on the type of tablets you use, how quickly you use them, the amount you take, and your metabolism and health status. Moreover, some pills are more potent than others. Hence, they may knock you unconscious or slow your breathing rather quickly than others.

An opioid overdose can lead to the following signs and symptoms in a person:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Breathing difficulties, such as slowed, labored, or irregular breathing
  • Markedly constricted or pinpoint pupils
  • Choking or snoring sounds
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Being unresponsive to loud noises or painful stimuli
  • Blue or purple tinge around lips or on fingertips

Taking higher amounts of benzodiazepines can also trigger an overdose, leading to the following symptoms: [2]

  • Marked confused
  • Severely impaired mental status
  • Slow, labored breathing, sometimes progressing to a complete respiratory arrest
  • Coma
  • Slurry speech

Following are the signs and symptoms likely to appear in the event of a stimulant overdose:

  • Dangerously elevated body temperature
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Hyperventilation or rapid breathing
  • Hypertension
  • Panic
  • Devastating cardiovascular events, such as heart attack, stroke, and circulatory compromise
  • Paranoia and other features of psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Aggression
  • Seizures and convulsions

Remember that certain overdoses occur when a person mixes at least two or more pills. Such combinations lead to additive effects, compounding the individual dangers of each drug. For instance, overdoses related to the use of benzodiazepines also involve the simultaneous use of illicit opioids and misused prescription pills.

What To Do When Someone is Overdosing on Pills?

If you suspect that someone around you is undergoing an overdose, keep the following things in mind and act on them promptly:

Call a Local Emergency Helpline

Contact a local emergency helpline and inform them that someone has overdosed. If possible, tell them about the pills they took and the amount. Let them know if the person has become unresponsive so that they can guide you on what to do in a stepwise order, for instance, rescue breathing and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Take Measures As Necessary

Depending on the type of pills overdose, you may consider taking specific steps to save a life. For instance, if you know that someone has overdosed on an opioid, check if they have any naloxone on them, as it acts as an antidote and can often reverse the symptoms to prevent mortality. [3] However, remember that naloxone has a role in people who have overdosed on pills other than opioids. If the medication fails to work in a person who has taken a hefty dose of opioids, give another dose after 2-3 minutes. Even if a person responds to naloxone, they still require urgent assessment by a professional.

Stay With the Person Until Help Comes

Do not leave or abandon a person who has overdosed on pills. Ideally, you must inform the emergency services and wait for them to come. It is also beneficial to provide them with necessary information if you are aware of it, such as the type of drug the victim consumed, timing and speed of consumption, any past medical history, etc.

Life After OD on Pills: What it Entails

Recovery from a pill overdose can vary depending on the following factors:

  • Amount of drugs taken
  • The type of pills that led to an overdose
  • The general health status of the person
  • History of medication use and substance addiction
  • The amount of time a person was in a critical state before getting medical help

A pills overdose is not likely to cause any lasting damage if a person gets medical help in time. For complete recovery without organ damage, a person may need at least a few days up to a few weeks. Some symptoms, especially the ones due to an opioid overdose, may take extra time to heal fully. In many unfortunate cases, complete recovery due to an overdose can be difficult, mainly when the damage has spread to the brain and other organs.

People who have experienced an overdose are at a higher risk of going through another. Hence, their recovery steps must involve seeking professional help to address the circumstances and behaviors that led to the overdose in the first place. For instance, people on opioid prescriptions who experienced an overdose should consider alternative pain relief medications. Moreover, they must use their opioid medication strictly as prescribed and when needed.


What are the most common types of pills that people overdose?

Following are some pills most commonly involved in overdoses:

  • Opioids, such as heroin and morphine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax
  • Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and oxycodone

What does a pills overdose effect include?

A substance can overwhelm the body when taken in large quantities. This may occur in different ways; however, respiratory failure remains the most common cause of death in people overdosing on pills. Some other effects of OD on pills include the following:

  • Cardiac arrest
  • Hypothermia
  • Choking and vomiting
  • Cardiovascular collapse
  • Severe dehydration

These conditions may ultimately lead to a coma or even death, especially in a person who does not receive timely medical treatment and attention.

How long does it take for an overdose to kick in from tablets?

Different drugs can affect a person differently. In general, the rate of metabolism significantly determines how long it will take for a drug overdose to kick in. Some factors affecting this rate of metabolism include the following:

  • Genetics
  • The potency of the drug used (drugs available on the street are often cut or mixed with other substances, and their strength may vary from one dealer to another)
  • Amount of medication taken and how fast it was consumed
  • Any pre-existing liver, kidney, or lung condition that affects metabolism
  • Presence of alcohol or any other drug taken simultaneously
  • Body weight and age of the individual
  • Drug tolerance level, i.e., how much of the pills the user’s body is used to receiving

How fast can a pill overdose damage lead to death?

The answer to this question depends on the cause of death. In general, it takes one to three hours for a person to die from the time they overdose on pills. If medical help arrives during this time, the rate of survival increases. Remember that despite being a scary experience, an overdose does not always lead to death, primarily if handled carefully.


1 Doggui R, Adib K, Baldacchino A. Understanding Fatal and Non-Fatal Drug Overdose Risk Factors: Overdose Risk Questionnaire Pilot Study—Validation. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2021 Sep 28;12:693673.

2 Kang M, Galuska MA, Ghassemzadeh S. Benzodiazepine toxicity.

3 Dunne RB. Prescribing naloxone for opioid overdose intervention. Pain management. 2018 May;8(3):197-208.

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