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What is International Overdose Awareness Day?

In 2001 Sally J. Finn, a Salvation Army worker and Peter Streker, a City of Port Phillip Community Health development worker, planned a local event to commemorate friends, partners or family members who had passed away from a drug overdose. Since then, the event has become an annual, truly international day of awareness of overdose, with communities and organisations taking part and holding local events every year on October 31st. In 2012, responsibility for the day was transferred to the Penington Institute who continue to promote and educate about overdose awareness throughout the year, culminating in the annual International Overdose Awareness Day.

What causes an accidental overdose?

From the International Overdose Awareness Day website:

An overdose means having too much of a drug (or combination of drugs) for your body to be able to cope with. There are a number of signs and symptoms that show someone has overdosed, and these differ with the type of drug used. All drugs can cause an overdose, including prescription medication prescribed by a doctor. It is important to know your correct dosage, what drugs definitely should not be mixed, and know to seek help if you feel you are not in control of your drug use.

Overdoses can be caused by single drugs, or a combination of drugs, including alcohol. Most overdoses in Australia are caused by combinations of drugs, the most common being prescription drugs, including benzodiazepines (diazepam, clonazepam etc), stronger opioid pain killers (oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl) and alcohol, but illicit drugs like heroin and stimulants like methamphetamine (ice or speed) also contribute to overdose deaths. Other prescription drugs that cause a calming or drowsy effect, like many anti-depressants may also be involved.

Drugs like benzodiazepines, opioids and alcohol all work in the brain, producing a generalised calming effect or drowsy effect, but too much can cause the respiratory system or heart rate to slow down and even stop, causing death. Stimulants like ice can cause raised heart rates and body temperature, increasing the risk of heart attack or seizure, and sometimes death.

See the International Overdose Awareness Day website for a more detailed overview of what causes overdose.

Who is at risk of overdose?

Overdose doesn’t discriminate. Anyone who uses recreational drugs or prescribed opioid pain killers or benzodiazepines, particularly with alcohol, may be at risk of an overdose, however some people may have a higher risk, including those who:

  • have an existing substance use disorder (substance abuse or dependence)
  • are new to using illicit drugs
  • have recently been release from incarceration
  • have certain chronic medical conditions, including kidney or liver disease, heart failure, respiratory disease, pancreatic disease, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or have had a stroke
  • use the strong opioid pain killers fentanyl, morphine, methadone or hydromorphone
  • use an extended release form of any opioid pain killer (eg: Oxycontin or MS-Contin)
  • use a high dose of any opioid pain killer
  • use a prescription benzodiazepine (eg: diazepam or clonazepam)
  • use a prescription antidepressant
  • take more than the prescribed dose or more frequently than the prescribed dose of prescription pain killers or benzodiazepines, particularly with alcohol

If you are at all concerned about your own risk or a friend or family member’s risk of overdose or problematic drug or alcohol use, speak to your doctor or pharmacist about reducing risk, and/or available treatments.



International Overdose Awareness Day
Penington Institute
Overdose and naloxone resources


Do you know what an overdose looks like?

Recognising and responding to an overdose.

The signs of different types of overdose can be different but the basics of responding are similar. Use these guides to recognise and respond appropriately.

For opioid overdoses, use naloxone if available

Naloxone for opioid overdose saves lives. If you suspect an opioid overdose, have access to naloxone and are confident in using it, don’t hesitate.

Naloxone is available on prescription to the person at risk or over-the-counter from pharmacies. Speak with your GP or pharmacist. If  you would like to receive training in using naloxone, contact the pharmacotherapy team at Primary Care Connect on (03) 5823 3200.

All files on this page are produced and provided by Penington Institute for International Overdose Awareness Day. These and many other resources can be found at and