The Link Between Relapse and Overdose

Relapse can be an unfortunate part of the recovery process for some individuals. Those who struggle with sobriety can find it difficult to stay away from drugs and alcohol, especially when experiencing stressful situations. Relapse carries a lot of emotion for the addict and their support team. However, it also carries something else that many people fail to realize: the risk of overdose.

Tolerance and the Progression of Addiction

When a person uses drugs or alcohol on a regular basis, their tolerance for it increases. This means that they need more of the drug to feel the same effects. In the case of opiates, repeated use causes the opioid receptors in the brain to become desensitized. The brain is used to being high on heroin, so it adapts to it. Tolerance is the reason why people increase their dosage as they progress through addiction.

When an addict seeks treatment for a drug problem, they must first go through the withdrawal process. Withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, and sometimes fatal. This is why it’s recommended to seek detox in a medically supervised environment. Medications and therapies are available to manage some of the symptoms and prepare the addict for residential treatment.

Higher Risk of Overdose During Relapse

Whether a person has stopped using drugs or alcohol for one month or 12, their tolerance has gone down. Unfortunately, addicts don’t know how to “adjust” their drug of choice to meet their current tolerance level. If they relapse, they usually go right back to using the same amount as they were currently using, except for that they don’t have any tolerance to the drug.

Without tolerance, the body is at risk for dangerous side effects, including overdose. Harmful side effects can happen with any drug, but some are so strong (i.e., opiates), they carry an even greater risk of danger. Also, accidental overdose is more likely to occur when mixing drugs and alcohol. Heroin and alcohol are both depressants that slow down respiratory functions.

Relapse Warning Signs

No single person can stop a person from relapsing. However, being familiar with the signs of a potential relapse allows you to step in and get the recovering addict more support. Some of the most common warning signs of relapse are:

  • Strong emotions, such as anxiety, depression, fear, anger or loneliness that are uncontrolled

  • Engaging with people and places that are associated with drugs and alcohol

  • Dealing with a high level of stress and not having coping mechanisms to deal with it

  • Celebrations such as holidays or birthdays – relapse isn’t always tied to stressful events

Be vigilant in your loved one’s recovery. Their tolerance is much lower from the time they return home from treatment. Encourage your loved one to work closely with their sponsor, attend support groups and follow their continuing care plan. While not guaranteed, these steps can greatly reduce the risk of relapse and accidental overdose.