By: Chideha M. Ohuoha, M.D., M.P.H., CAPT (USPHS), Director, SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Treatment

Earlier this month there was news that over 90 people overdosed on synthetic marijuana laced

with the powerful opioid fentanyl at a park in New Haven, Conn. Thankfully, no one died of an overdose that day due to the quick response from emergency personnel. Such stories remind us that people across the country are struggling with addiction to illicit substances and opioid-based pain medications. In 2017, the lives of over 72,000 Americans ended prematurely due to overdose, which is now the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old.

International Overdose Awareness Day, which is August 31, brings into focus the importance of seeking help for addiction. As a doctor specializing in addiction medicine for over 10 years, I have seen firsthand how people develop physical and psychological dependence on drugs and alcohol and how that can take over their lives. For some, it starts with curiosity and experimentation. For others, it starts with a need for something to help them cope with physical or emotional pain. No matter how illicit drug use begins, the dangers are serious—an overdose can happen instantly and before help can arrive. We should all learn to recognize the signs of overdose and learn how to safely reverse an overdose. For example, signs of an opioid overdose include:

  • Unconsciousness or not being able to wake up;
  • Slow, shallow breathing or breathing difficulty such as choking sounds or a gurgling/snoring noise from the person who cannot be woken up; and
  • Fingernails or lips turning blue/purple.

We should also be aware that addiction can affect anyone. Addictive substances hijack the brain into releasing chemicals that give a feeling of pleasure and reward. These substances trick the brain into seeking more gratification after each use. When left untreated, addiction often leads to other chronic illnesses, including physical illness and mental health disorders that, over time, become more debilitating and life-threatening. The good news is that people can and do recover with the right treatment. SAMHSA’s guide to Finding Quality Treatment for Substance Use Disorders is a good resource for those seeking treatment.

Starting treatment is a step toward recovery, but it’s only the first step. Even for those in treatment or recovery, a substance use disorder is a chronic disease. As with other diseases, relapse can happen. Recovering from an addiction is like starting physical therapy after experiencing a debilitating physical injury. It takes time to heal and to learn new ways to function. Although there may be setbacks, with the right kind of help and continued perseverance, people with a substance use disorder can enjoy a healthy life in long-term recovery.

If you or someone you know is in need of help for a substance use disorder, you are not alone. Call 1-800-662-HELP for a treatment referral or visit to find a treatment provider near you. For immediate help for a potential drug overdose, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.