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The Difference Between Overdosing & Drug Poisoning — And How Fentanyl Became So Dangerous

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In recent years, opioid use, overdoses, and now poisonings have become the most significant public health issues in the United States.

Every day, we see headlines about more people dying due to illegal fentanyl. Fentanyl is the single most lethal drug our nation has ever seen.

It affects every community regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or geography.

Criminal drug networks are flooding our borders with mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription pills to deceive the American public on the black market.

The devastation drug addiction brings to families and communities is immeasurable. We must do everything within our power to stop this tragedy from ruining so many lives.

To that end, it's essential to understand the difference between an overdose and poisoning when it comes to someone's death. The language we use can significantly influence how we view and respond to these tragedies. 

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What is an overdose?

Because there is no standard definition for "drug overdose," the term is often used interchangeably with "drug poisoning" and "drug-related death."

These terms are not always used consistently by organizations responsible for providing public data and reports, making their results complicated and often inaccurate.

This lack of consistency and accuracy creates confusion, and misunderstanding, consequently causing a delay in finding effective solutions to a tragedy killing hundreds of people daily.

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Can happen by accident — or on purpose

An overdose occurs when a person takes more of a substance than their body can safely process. This can happen accidentally, especially if a person takes multiple substances at once or takes a substance, they are not tolerant to.

Sometimes, people intentionally take too much of a substance to get high or, in many cases, self-medicate unwanted feelings. Still, unless they feel suicidal, their intentions are rarely to die.

No matter the reason for the overdose, it is always a tragedy.

Many drugs can cause overdoses, but opioids are some of the most commonly involved substances.

Opioids are a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Percocet, in addition to illegal drugs like heroin and illicit forms of fentanyl.

Opioids bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord, reducing pain perception. They also have mood-altering effects, which is why they're often abused.

When someone takes too many opioids or takes them along with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol, it can slow down their breathing to a lethal degree.

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What is drug poisoning?

Poisoning occurs when someone intentionally gives someone else a substance that will make them sick or kill them. This can happen through food, drink contamination or by putting harmful chemicals in medications or other products.

Drug deaths can also be considered poisoning if the substance that caused the harm was given to the person without their knowledge or consent. They are often deceived and not aware of the presence of the drug or its strength.

In many cases, people ingest a pill believing it is a legitimate prescription medication such as hydrocodone (Vicodin®), oxycodone (Oxycontin®, Percocet®) and alprazolam (Xanax®); or amphetamines (Adderall®) — but end up dying from fentanyl toxicity.  

Drug poisoning occurs when someone is exposed to a drug that is harmful to their health — unlike drug overdoses, which occur when someone takes too much of a drug, resulting in serious health consequences or death.

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Most vulnerable: young adults

The most targeted group of victims is young adults.

Young adults are known to push their limits and take risks. However, this curiosity should not be their downfall. Fentanyl poisoning is destroying a generation of young people.

Those who have not died from fentanyl overdoses have suffered the trauma of knowing who did. Parents are mourning the sudden death of their children, and grandparents are suddenly taking on the responsibility of parenting their grandchildren.

This epidemic has had a devastating impact on families and communities across the country. It is time for young people to be more aware of the dangerous times they are living in.

They need to know that fentanyl has and continues to invade every corner of our nation. They need to be aware that this crisis is bigger than anything we have ever seen and that they are not invincible. That one poor decision can have lethal consequences.

Only by understanding the risks can they make informed decisions about their safety.

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Fentanyl overdose and poisoning are preventable tragedies, and we need to do anything in our power to protect our children from this fate.

We need to be clear in our statements and actions. I understand that the difference between an overdose and poisoning might seem like semantics for some, but it's important to use the correct terminology when discussing the unconscionable deaths of so many.

By understanding the difference between these two terms, we can help reduce the stigma around overdoses and ensure those responsible for poisonings are held accountable for their actions.

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Clare Waismann is an experienced and well-respected substance use counselor, as well as the founder of Waismann Method® Opioid Treatment Specialists and Domus Retreat Recovery Center. She has written extensively for numerous healthcare publications and has been featured in national and international media.

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