During an overdose, someone breathes slower or can stop breathing altogether, researchers said. The systems can be reversed with the drug naloxone if caught in time, they added.
To do that, UW researchers have created an experimental app called Second Chance.
The app uses inaudible sound signals or sonar to monitor someone's breathing rate and movements from up to 3 feet away, to help track when an opioid overdose happens.
If a person's breathing slows down or stops, the app sends an alarm to ask the person if they're OK.
If the person doesn't respond, the app can alert someone for help.
"It's heartbreaking to think that someone can pass away while having a smartphone in their pocket that can potentially help them."
"As computer scientists, why not use technology to solve this real problem and potentially save lives as well?" said Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a Ph.D. student with the UW computer science department.
"It's one of those things where this is potentially a solution to a part of, to sort of keep people safe until they're safe to access treatment," said Dr. Jacob Sunshine, assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine for the UW School of Medicine. "You can't access treatment if you're not alive."
To test the algorithm behind the app, researchers partnered with Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia.
On average, the algorithm correctly identified breathing problems that can lead to an overdose 90 percent of the time, researchers said.
"Our goal is to make it more and more accessible to people to use the app," Nandakumar told Circa partner KOMO-TV.
Researchers are now in the initial process of applying for approval with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The hope is to make the app available to the masses within the next year and a half, Nandakumar said.
"It's something that's on your phone, so it's nothing that can identify you," Sunshine said. "And so, there's no stigma associated with it."
The idea is to use technology to help save lives and create an avenue for additional help.
Right now, the app has only been tested on illegal, injectable opioid use, researchers said. Deaths from those overdoses are the most common.
"It's heartbreaking to think that someone can pass away while having a smartphone in their pocket that can potentially help them," Sunshine said.