Why people are more likely to overdose after they've been sober

Demi Lovato (Photo: Getty Images)
Demi Lovato (Photo: Getty Images)

Fans of Demi Lovato were shocked Tuesday when news broke that the singer was hospitalized after a drug overdose.

Lovato’s overdose came at the end of an all-night party at her home, police told TMZ, and she was administered Narcan, a drug that is designed to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. The drug that caused her overdose has not been revealed publicly.

Lovato, 25, has been very out in the open about getting sober after struggling with drug abuse and revealed that she had relapsed after years of sobriety in a new single released in late June called “Sober.” “To the ones who never left me, we’ve been down the road before. I’m so sorry. I’m not sober anymore,” she sings in the song. “I’m sorry that I’m here again. I promise I’ll get help.”

Abusing drugs in any situation is dangerous, but it’s especially so after becoming sober, Jamie Alan, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Here’s why: When people are actively using a drug, they develop a tolerance to that drug and need to use an increasing amount of it to get the same high as before, Alan explains. They can also develop a tolerance to the respiratory depression that is a side effect of abusing narcotics, she says. But when someone becomes sober, that tolerance is lost. “When they relapse, they may start with a dose that they ended with before they detoxed, but they don’t have that same tolerance,” Alan says. “They’re then at an increased risk for an overdose.”

They’re also at a greater risk of stopping breathing as a result of the narcotic, Alan says — and people can die this way. “The dose that would not have been lethal to them before would now be lethal,” she says.

That is believed to be what was behind the death of Glee actor Cory Monteith, who died of a heroin overdose at age 31 after years of sobriety. Monteith checked in to rehab for the third time on April 2013 but was found dead on July 13, 2013, in a Vancouver, British Columbia, hotel room. There were traces of heroin, morphine, and codeine in his body, People reports.

Former addicts are at an increased risk of abusing drugs again after they get clean, and there’s only so much the medical community can do once a patient checks out of a treatment facility. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an implantable version of Narcan that slowly releases the drug over time in a person’s body. It’s embedded under the skin, similar to the birth control implant, and can block the high and decrease the odds someone will stop breathing if that person ends up relapsing, Alan says. Still, it’s not widely used.

Lovato is now awake, her family members said in a statement to the Associated Press.

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