What You Need to Know About This Critical Anti-Overdose Drug

May 22nd 2016

Naloxone isn't a cure for opioid addiction, but it can save the lives of people who overdose on heroin or painkillers.

Here's why it's important.

syringe-containing-heroin-antidoteAP/John Dixon -

Naloxone — the generic name of a medication sometimes marketed as Narcan or Evzio — is a rescue drug that blocks and reverses the effects of opioids, a class of drugs that is increasingly abused in the United States. When a person overdoses on heroin or painkillers, their respiratory system fails. Naloxone — administered as an injection or nasal spray — allows them to start breathing again, and the results are immediate.

How naloxone works.

An opioid overdose occurs when a person takes too much heroin or too many prescription painkillers, depressing their respiratory and central nervous systems. The human body consists of many opioid receptors, which are flooded during an overdose. Naloxone is more powerfully attracted to these opioids, so it essentially boots the dangerous opioids off the receptors when introduced to the body, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition.

naloxoneHarm Reduction Coalition -

naloxoneHarm Reduction Coalition -

Traditionally, paramedics and hospitals have been equipped with naloxone to treat overdoses. Now there's a push to increase access to the overdose drug. It's available through a doctor's prescription, and, with minimal training, anyone can learn to effectively administer the medication to someone experiencing an overdose. Walgreens recently announced plans to roll out a nationwide naloxone program, manufacturing and distributing the drugs without requiring a prescription.

Why access to naloxone is important.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Almost 19,000 people died from painkiller overdoses, and 10,500 others died from heroin overdoses in 2014 alone, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. While naloxone isn't a cure for addiction, it represents a lifesaving option for those who inadvertently overdose on these drugs.

The CDC also reported that naloxone saved at least 10,000 lives between 1996 and 2010, reversing the effects of opioid-related overdoses. Providing drug users and their family members with access to naloxone saved a life for every 227 naloxone kits that were distributed, a 2013 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found. There are even more optimistic estimates, showing that one life was saved for every 36 naloxone kits, as ATTN: previously reported.

Some critics argue that access to naloxone enables a cycle of addiction.

naloxoneWikimedia -

Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage recently vetoed a bill that would have expanded access to naloxone in the state. In a veto letter, he wrote that the drug "merely extends [the life of drug addicts] until the next overdose."

"Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction," LePage wrote.

But others contend that increased naloxone access is a crucial step forward in the fight against opioid abuse.

"Like many other things, people assume that it can't happen to them," Daniel Raymond, the policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, told ATTN:. "Sometimes overdoses happen through mistakes."

"People who are on pain medication don't realize that it could be dangerous to have a couple of drinks if you're taking prescription painkillers, or their doctors don't realize that their patient is on a painkiller and prescribes something that interacts with it. But other times, even if it's somebody who's struggling with addiction, we know from experience that it's not the fear of overdose that affects whether people are likely to use or not use. The addiction is powerful in and of itself and can compel people to continue using, even at the risk of their own health."

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