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What is Narcan, and How Does it Work?

August 20, 2017

Over the course of the past several years, the national number of opioid-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed to deeply upsetting and unparalleled rates. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that the number of total deaths has quadrupled since 1999, with more than 15,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 alone. The most commonly abused opioids include methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and heroin. Many individuals who began abusing prescription painkillers switched over to heroin, a cheaper and more readily available opioid alternative, when government crackdowns on pharmaceutical distribution made painkillers more difficult to come by. The number of Americans who met the criteria for heroin addiction in 2012, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, totaled in at over 467,000. Clearly, opioid addiction and overdose-related death has rapidly become a major national issue – many now refer to heroin addiction as a nationwide epidemic.

In response to the dramatic increase in opioid-related deaths, many state and local governments have begun taking action in the realms of both prevention and potential treatment options. One of the most hugely influential (and controversial) methods of treatment is Narcan, an opiate antidote that essentially reverses the effects of an opioid-related overdose. While the drug has saved innumerable lives since it became more widely available, and has become accessible to members of the general population in some states, many addiction specialists are pushing for increased circulation and adequate administration training.

How Narcan Works

When an individual is experiencing an opioid overdose, he or she will undergo severe respiratory depression – breathing will slow significantly, and may even stop entirely. Narcan (naloxone) cannot be used to get an individual high; in fact, it works to reverse the symptoms of an opioid-induced high.

So how exactly does Narcan work?

When an individual who is undergoing an opioid overdose is given Narcan, the opioids will essentially be knocked out of the opiate receptors within his or her brain. These receptors will be effectively blocked, and as a direct result, the lethal symptoms of an overdose will be reversed. Narcan can help even if opiates have been mixed with alcohol or other drugs. A single dose of Narcan will restore normal breathing, and the individual who experienced the overdose will be significantly easier to wake. It is crucial that Narcan is administered as quickly as possible, seeing as the lack of oxygen to the brain can result in permanent brain damage. It is also exceedingly important that medical assistance is sought immediately after Narcan has been administered. Increasing the circulation of this opioid blocker will allow concerned citizens a window of opportunity to save a life before emergency responders arrive on the scene.

Narcan is administered one of two ways – either intravenously or nasally. Intramuscular injection is the most immediately effective, but seeing as nasal administration is far more straightforward, the Narcan nasal spray can be prescribed in many cities throughout the country. It usually takes Narcan around 5 minutes to work, and about 30 minutes to begin to wear off.

For more information on Narcan administration and availability, please call your local pharmacy.