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How to Recognize (and Save a Friend From) an Overdose

Health educators can help save lives with early interventions like education and prevention programs.

If you know someone with an addiction, learning to recognize the signs of a drug overdose may mean the difference between life and death.

In 2019, 70,980 people died of overdoses in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributes 50,042 of those deaths to opioids, a class of drugs that includes illegal substances like heroin and fentanyl, as well as prescription medicines like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine.1


“Death from an opioid overdose happens when too much of the drug overwhelms the brain and interrupts the body’s natural drive to breathe,” the CDC explains. Because opioids caused the majority of overdose deaths in 2019, it’s perhaps most critical to know the signs and symptoms of a potential opioid overdose. According to the CDC, they are:2

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint pupils”
  • Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds
  • Limp body
  • Pale, blue, or cold skin

The CDC says that while you may not know for certain that a person is experiencing an overdose, you should respond as if he or she is. “You could save a life,” the CDC says, advising the following actions:2

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Administer naloxone, if available. Ask your doctor about naloxone—a safe medication that can quickly stop an opioid overdose. It can be injected into the muscle or sprayed into the nose to rapidly block the effects of the opioid on the body.
  • Try to keep the person awake and breathing.
  • Lay the person on their side to prevent choking.
  • Stay with him or her until emergency workers arrive.

Other Deadly Drugs

Overdoses also result from the use of cocaine; psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, amphetamines, and prescription stimulants; and combinations of drugs, or polysubstance use.3 Visible signs of overdoses can vary according to the substance. If you suspect a friend or loved one may be abusing these types of drugs, you may want to speak to your healthcare professional or an addiction counselor to learn more.

Act Early to Save Lives

The CDC emphasizes that the best way to try to prevent an overdose is through early intervention. Health educators can be part of this important work through efforts like developing drug education and prevention programs. Here are the agency’s recommendations for helping to reduce the number of overdose deaths:4

  • Enhance linkage to care, including to mental health and substance use disorder treatment and support services.
  • Increase access to risk reduction services.
  • Increase distribution of and access to naloxone, especially for bystanders who may be able to reverse an opioid overdose.
  • Reduce high-risk drug use by improving prescribing practices, preventing initiation of drug use, and addressing use of multiple drugs.

Find Help for Addiction

You can receive free, confidential information about substance abuse and mental health concerns by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration operates the helpline, which is available 24/7, 365 days a year.5

Boost Community Health Outcomes

A career in health education and promotion offers a multitude of ways to help build healthier, more resilient communities. Walden University’s online MS in Health Education and Promotion degree program can help prepare you to find your niche in the growing health education field. 

Walden’s program, one of the few online degree programs dedicated exclusively to health education and promotion, features curriculum aligned with the Seven Areas of Responsibility for Health Educators outlined by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). This means that Walden’s coursework has been designed to prepare you to sit for the national Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and Master Health Education Specialist (MCHES) exams, two career-enhancing certifications.

There’s a strong job market for health educators, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects that employment of health educators and community health workers will grow 17% through 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.6 An online master’s in health education and promotion can be a springboard to jobs in direct service or leadership positions in academic, clinical, community, or corporate settings.

Walden designs its online degree programs for adult professionals who want to continue to work full time while earning a degree. Walden gives you the freedom to log in to your coursework where and when it’s most convenient for you. Course by course, as your knowledge and expertise grow, you’ll be steps closer to becoming a health educator whose work improves—and saves—lives.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Health Education and Promotion degree program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,

Walden University’s MS in Health Education and Promotion has been designed to reflect the Seven Areas of Responsibility for Health Educators outlined by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC) and to prepare students to sit for the national Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) exams. Walden enrollment specialists can provide information relating to national certification exams; however, it remains the individual’s responsibility to understand, evaluate, and comply with all requirements relating to national certification exams for the state in which he or she intends to practice. Walden makes no representations or guarantee that completion of Walden coursework or programs will permit an individual to obtain national certification. For more information about the CHES and MCHES exams, students should visit