• Opioid Overdose

    What are Opioids?

    Opioids are drugs that are prescribed to reduce pain for serious injuries or cancer or after surgeries. The widespread use of opioids has led to frequent misuse and addiction, along with life-threatening overdoses.

    What Drugs are Considered Opioids?

      Prescription opioids include:

      • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
      • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
      • Oxymorphone (Opana®)
      • Codeine (used alone or in combination with acetaminophen [Tylenol] or couch medicine)
      • Morphine (Kadine®, Avinza®)
      • Fentanyl

      Illegal (non-prescription) forms of opioids (e.g., heroin) include drugs with street names of “brown sugar,” “china white,” “dope,”, “H,” “horse,” “junk,” “skag,” “skunk” and “smack.”

      Emergency Steps


      Check the scene safety, form an initial impression, obtain consent and put on PPE, as appropriate.


      Check for signs and symptoms.

      • Decreased breathing effort (e.g., breathing slowly and/or only a few times a minute)*
      • Gasping or gurling*
      • Unresponsiveness*
      • Blueish or grayish skin color*
      • Cardiac arrest*
      • Evidence of opioid use

      *Note: Signs and symptoms with a * require immediate emergency medical treatment.


      Call 9-1-1 and get equipment if the person requires immediate attention.


      Give Care.

      General Care: Opioid Overdose (Untrained)

      1. If person unresponsive and not breathing (cardiac arrest), immediately begin CPR or compression-only CPR based on level of training and use an AED when available.
        1. Assist with or administer (if trained) naloxone without disrupting or delaying CPR and AED use.
      2. If breathing slowly or irregularly and/or not fully awake, assist with or administer (if trained) naloxone.
        1. Stay with them until EMS arrives.
      3. Continue checking them as appropriate to determine if additional care is needed.
      4. Keep them from getting cold or overheated.
      5. Give care for shock, if necessary.
      6. Position the person as appropriate.
      7. Reassure them you will help and that EMS has been called (if appropriate).
      8. Watch for changes in condition, including breathing and responsiveness, and give care as appropriate and trained.

      Opioid Overdose FAQs

      Why are opioids such a problem?

      The effectiveness of opioid drugs has led to widespread use, and also misuse and addiction, fueling what is being called the opioid epidemic. There are also illegal derivates of opioids available, such as heroin. According to Dr. Nathan Charlton of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, surpassing even motor vehicle crashes. Opioids are the number one cause of these deaths.

      What kind of clues might I see that would suggest an opioid overdose?

      Clues that suggest an opioid overdose include prescription pill bottles, pipes, needles, syringes, pill powder or other drug-related items.

      What is naloxone and how does it work?

      Naloxone is a drug that temporarily reverses the symptoms of opioid overdose, including changes in behavior and unresponsiveness and it normalizes breathing. Naloxone can save a person’s life until professional medical help arrives. This drug stops the effects of an opioid overdose by blocking the parts of the body that respond to opioids. Even if given naloxone, a person will also need immediate medical care, as the blocking effects of naloxone often are shorter than the effect of most opioids.

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      Information Provided the Scientific Advisory Council (SAC)

      Behind every American Red Cross training program stands the Scientific Advisory Council - a team of experts dedicated to ensuring that what you learn is based on the latest and best emergency science. Visit redcross.org/take-a-class/scientific-advisory-council to see how we work, members, sub councils, scientific reviews, and recent research.

      Download the FREE Red Cross First Aid App

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