Narcan is one brand name of the drug naloxone, which is a drug that reverses opioid overdose. Naloxone is a crucial tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic. Fatal opioid overdoses have been increasing exponentially in the US in the past few years, reaching nearly 50,000 in 2017. Governments at the local, state, and federal level have responded in a variety of ways, including expanding access to treatment, limiting the supply of opioids, and increasing access to treatment medications such as Vivitrol. In the meantime, expanding access to naloxone can help keep people alive long enough to enter treatment.
Naloxone works simply by binding to the same receptors in the brain as opioids bind to, only naloxone molecules bind more strongly. A person overdoses when excess opioid molecules bind to opioid receptors in the area of the brain that regulates breathing. Breathing slows to dangerously low levels and the person may lose consciousness or become unresponsive. A dose of naloxone dislodges opioid molecules from those opioid receptors and allows the person to resume breathing normally. Although naloxone binds to the same receptors as opioids, it does not cause euphoria like opioids do. Naloxone also has no effect at all on someone who hasn’t used opioids, so it’s safe to use even if you aren’t sure someone is overdosing.
Depending on the delivery method, naloxone typically reverses an opioid overdose within three to five minutes and lasts for 30 to 90 minutes. This is typically long enough for the danger of an overdose to pass, but not always. Some people require an extra dose. Anyone who is administered naloxone should receive medical attention immediately. Naloxone may also cause symptoms of opioid withdrawal, including restlessness, anxiety, irritability, dizziness, fever, chills, aches, diarrhea, and nausea. Unpleasant though these symptoms are, they are better than death.
Many first responders, including police, fire fighters, and EMTs, now carry naloxone so they can respond quickly to an opioid overdose. What’s more, advocacy groups are encouraging friends and family members of people with opioid use disorders to keep naloxone on hand in case of emergency. The nasal spray Narcan and the self-injector Evzio are easy to use and having them on hand drastically reduce the risk of someone having a fatal overdose. Narcan is also very easy to get now. Both Walgreens and CVS sell it over the counter in most states. It typically costs around 135 dollars and comes with two doses–just in case.
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