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As fentanyl draws more attention, tracking methamphetamine overdoses, deaths prove challenging

(Update: adding video, comments from Deschutes County Health Services, Bend Fire EMS official)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- According to the Oregon Health Authority, the number of people dying from unintentional methamphetamine overdoses increased by more than 20 times from 2009 to 2022. It's a long-standing problem that has been overshadowed to some degree by the recent surge in use and overdoses involving deadly fentanyl.

More than half (58%) of Oregon’s unintentional methamphetamine overdose deaths over that time also involved other substances, including fentanyl, OHA reported recently.

"It really does make increase the risk of overdose by using both stimulants and opioids." Deschutes County Health Services Supervisor Jess Neuwirth said Wednesday.

However, Deschutes County Health reports overdose numbers are lower here than the rest of the state.

In Central Oregon, fewer than 1% of emergency room visits over the past three months were related to opioids or stimulants.

"I do know that even though Deschutes County continues to have one of the lowest drug overdose mortality rates in Oregon, it's important to remain vigilant. We're actively working to prevent any deaths." Neuwirth said.

Opioid overdoses can be reversed by the life-saving medication Narcan, but the same can't be said of methamphetamine.

"Narcan is a very powerful life-saving medication that can reverse an opioid overdose. It does not reverse a stimulant overdose." Neuwirth said.

Bend Fire & Rescue's Deputy Chief for EMS Drew Norris says meth overdoses can be difficult to track.

"When we go on a call to report what we've seen and what we, what drugs have administered, the medical care, we provide it, but the overdoses, especially things besides opioid overdoses, are very difficult," Norris said.

That's because the drug is often mixed with other substances, which complicates identification. Norris added that effects of meth are also not as immediate as opioids.

"People don't die right off the bat," he said. "It seems like its prolonged use is where you start to see people that have those long-term effects, and then maybe go into cardiac arrest."

Deschutes County Health says if you have Narcan on hand, use it -- even if you don't know substance has caused the overdose.

Neuwirth said, "If someone is overdosing on a stimulant like methamphetamine, a Narcan actually may be able to help them, because they were unaware that there was fentanyl or another opioid in their drug."

Here's the OHA's information regarding meth abuse and their fact sheet on the problem:

From 2009-2022, Oregon experienced a 20-fold increase in the number of people dying from an unintentional methamphetamine overdose.

Methamphetamine facts:

  • Unlike opioids, methamphetamine is a stimulant, causing feelings of euphoria and increased energy.
  • Methamphetamine is man-made, highly addictive and often referred to as meth, ice, speed and crystal.
  • Methamphetamine comes in three main forms—pills, powder or rock chunks. It can be smoked, snorted, injected or orally ingested.
  • Long-term methamphetamine use can damage the heart and brain, and cause anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances and violent behavior.

Using methamphetamine mixed with other drugs, on purpose or accidentally, can lead to potentially stronger and unpredictable effects. With opioids or alcohol, its energizing effects can enhance effects or mask the “downer” effects of other substances. When methamphetamine is used with fentanyl, the risk of opioid overdose increases.  

A methamphetamine overdose is called an “overamp” or stimulant toxicity. Overamp symptoms are different than an opioid overdose, but both can cause brain damage or death.

Naloxone does not reverse a methamphetamine overamp but should be given if a person is unconscious and unresponsive in case the person also has taken opioids such as fentanyl.

Call 911 immediately if someone using methamphetamine exhibits:

  • Mild to weak paralysis or numbness on one side of the face or body.
  • Chest pain, pressure or discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes.
  • Fast heart rate and breathing, passing out, high body temperature.
  • Uncontrollable body jerking, twitching and movement.
  • Psychosis to the extent that the person could hurt themselves or others
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Jillian Fortner

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