What is Narcan? Is it the answer to country's opioid epidemic?

Naloxone can reverse effects of opioids within minutes


In light of Demi Lovato's apparent heroin overdose earlier this week and the opioid epidemic that has swept the nation in recent years, Narcan is a term that seems to be making repeated headlines. But what exactly is it? And what does it do?

For starters, Narcan is a brand name for an opioid overdose antidote called naloxone.

And naloxone is the antagonist that can completely or partially reverse an opioid overdose, even if someone has reached the point of having severe breathing problems.

Often, you'll see the word Narcan used when what is really meant is naloxone. It’s similar to someone asking for a Kleenex, when what they really want is a tissue. It’s the same thing, but one is a trademark. In these cases, Narcan and Kleenex are the brand names. Evzio is another brand that makes naxolone.

In another example, some people ask for a Motrin, which is the brand name of the medicine ibuprofen. Make sense? 

So how does the medicine work?

During an opioid overdose, the respiratory systems can shut down, causing the victim to become unconscious and/or fall into a coma. Naloxone essentially kicks out the opioid and takes its place in the brain’s opioid receptors.

How can it be administered?

Though a medical professional can administer the medicine through an injection, it is most commonly used in the form of a nasal spray, so anyone can deliver the life-saving drug.

One dose can be used on someone who has overdosed, by spraying it once in one nostril.

The person does not have to be breathing in order for the medicine to be administered.

According to Narcan.com, a patient can respond to the medicine in as quickly as two to three minutes.

Who can buy it?

Most states require a prescription.

In the states in which a prescription is not necessary, pharmacists can provide an individualized prescription directly to residents. This is known as direct dispensing.

Click here to find out if your state allows direct dispensing.

First responders are also able to buy in bulk in order to keep the life-saving medicine on hand.

How many doses can be used?

After the initial dose, if the person remains unresponsive, naloxone can be administered every three minutes, in alternating nostrils.

If the person comes to and then becomes unresponsive again, more naloxone doses can be administered.

It should be noted, however, that emergency care will still be necessary and the person administering naloxone should call 911 immediately, despite how many doses have been given.

Are there side effects?

Because the medicine will essentially immediately remove the opioid from the brain’s receptors, people can almost instantly begin to have severe withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Body aches
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • A runny nose
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Stomach cramping
  • Sneezing
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Weakness

Is there anything naloxone shouldn’t be taken with?

According to its website, the antidote should not be used if someone is allergic to naloxone hydrochloride or the following ingredients:

  • Benzalkonium chloride (which is a preservative)
  • Disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate (which is a stabilizer)
  • Sodium chloride
  • Hydrochloric acid (to adjust pH)
  • Purified water

So, is this drug the answer to the opioid crisis?

Well, that’s a pretty loaded question. Critics contend that using and providing naloxone regularly is facilitating the disfunction.

To accept the use of naloxone is to admit that we have a problem that can’t be conquered in any other way. It’s a philosophical argument, really.

Medical expert Dr. Frank McGeorge compared it to fire hoses: As in, fires are going to happen, regardless.

“We certainly don’t want fires, but we still have to have hoses available,” McGeorge said.

It seems as though opiate overdoses are a problem that we can’t overcome just by stopping the flow of opiates, the doctor added.

Still, it sounds as if naloxone is too good to be true, in some cases. Right?

Not so fast. It’s definitely not a perfect medicine.

Keep in mind that, when you give it to someone, “you can make (a person) very sick, very fast,” McGeorge said. “So it’s not a universally fabulous thing, but it can pull (someone) from the jaws of death. And it’s still better than death.”

Also, naloxone is a very safe drug, all things considered. If it’s given to someone who hasn’t been taking opiates, it won’t have any effect.

And the cost is very low, especially compared to the cost of calling a paramedic. It’s definitely cheaper than that, McGeorge said.

Click here to learn more about Narcan.

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