What Is Naloxone (Narcan)?
Naloxone, known by the common brand name Narcan, is a medication designed to reverse the harmful effects of Opioid overdose. Opioids include Heroin, Hydrocodone, Morphine, Oxycodone and others. If not treated immediately, an Opioid overdose can be fatal.
81.6% of reported Naloxone reversals involved Heroin. Prescription Opioids were involved in 14.1% of cases.
Other potential symptoms may consist of the following:
- Slow heartbeat
- Extreme sleepiness
- Inability to respond to those around them
- Blue/purple skin, fingers, lips
- Slow pulse
With a significantly growing number of Opioid-related deaths occurring in the US, Naloxone offers a life-saving treatment until emergency medical technicians arrive on the scene. The medication should only be used if there is a reasonable belief that Opioids are in a person’s system and are experiencing an overdose. Narcan does not counter other drugs and should not be used in individuals who do not have Opioids in their system.
Although Narcan effectively counters the life-threatening symptoms of an Opioid overdose, it should not be used on anyone not experiencing an Opioid overdose.
Uses Of Naloxone (Narcan)
After an Opioid overdose, Narcan helps prevent respiratory and central nervous system depression. This occurs when breathing has slowed down or is at risk of stopping.
The medication was developed to be as simple as possible, so anyone trying to help can administer it safely with minimal training. The medication can either be injected, usually into the leg of the unconscious person or through a nasal spray, depending on the type of Narcan available. If someone you know experiences an overdose, contact an emergency medical team quickly after administering the medicine to ensure the next steps required in their care can happen.
In addition to reversing the negative impact of an Opioid overdose, Naloxone is also used after surgery. Generally, a small dose is sufficient for minor Opioid depression caused during surgery.
Naloxone (Narcan) Statistics
number of deaths
Prescription Opioid overdose deaths have more than tripled in the past 20 years in the US.
Naloxone prescriptions filled at US pharmacies increased 1170% between 2013 and 2015.
There are currently more than 600 community-based overdose education and Naloxone distribution (OEND) programs in the US.
Can Naloxone (Narcan) Help With Addiction Treatment?
Naloxone should only be used to help a person recover from an Opioid overdose. It is not meant to be a dedicated treatment for Opiate use disorder (OUD). Instead, addiction treatment requires a comprehensive medication management program, counseling, psychological support, and more.
Individuals who may benefit from Naloxone include those who:
- Consume large amounts of Opioids chronically
- Consume Opioids regularly to manage chronic pain
- Are in or have recently completed an Opioid detoxification program
- Experienced an Opioid overdose previously
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Naloxone reversed more than 10,000 overdoses between 1996 and 2010.
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How Is Naloxone (Narcan) Administered?
Currently, there are 2 types of Narcan available. Emergency medical technicians, first responders, and hospital staff have the medication on hand, but recently it has been approved by several states to be released through various pharmacies as well to ensure there is more access to the public.
- The nasal spray is a single-use, single-dose-only device. It requires no assembly and is easily administered to an individual as they lay on their back.
- The single-use auto-injector can be held with one hand. Its verbal instructions describe step-by-step how to administer the medication.
A medical professional, family member, or caregiver can assist with supplying medication from either device. Since symptoms can return after one dose, a second dose is often recommended shortly after the first. Emergency medical assistance must be contacted right away.
Naloxone is an Opioid antagonist or blocker that temporarily reverses the effects of Opioids for 20 to 30 minutes…the person who overdosed must still go to the emergency department for medical treatment.
The amount of medicine needed will vary based on the individual’s specific Opioid usage and medical history. Close family members or friends would benefit from being aware of overdose warning signs and knowing the device’s location in an emergency.
Side Effects Of Naloxone (Narcan)
While helpful in reversing Opioid overdose, Naloxone may cause some side effects. The most common side effect is Opioid withdrawal, which sometimes includes:
- Body aches
- Stomach pain
- Slight fever
The risk of an Opioid withdrawal increases with higher doses of Narcan.
Though rare, Naloxone may lead to severe side effects, including:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Loss of consciousness
Those who do not seek medical treatment after receiving a dose of Naloxone may face uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that are often accompanied by intense cravings to use again, resulting in a relapse event reoccurring. Naloxone stays in the body for approximately one hour, depending on the person. However, some Opioids can stay in the body for up to 12 hours, meaning Naloxone will wear off long before the Opioid. Therefore, consuming additional Opioids after taking the medication significantly increases the risk of a second overdose.
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Substances Naloxone (Narcan) Can Counteract
Narcan assists with counteracting the dangerous effects of an Opioid overdose. Some of the most common Opioids it can reverse effects of include:
- Other synthetic Opioids
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Where Is Naloxone (Narcan) Available?
Obtaining Naloxone depends on the state and country you reside in. A physician’s prescription is often required in many areas, so speak with your doctor if you take Opioids for health conditions and pain management.
In order for Naloxone to be most effective, we need to get it into the hands of people who are most likely to be on the scene of an overdose…they can start the process of reviving the person before paramedics or law enforcement come.
Recently, some areas have allowed the purchase of medication through dispensing pharmacists or several retail pharmacies. Cities and counties with Naloxone programs are showing slower rates in the growth of Opioid deaths compared to those without Naloxone programs. If you are concerned about yourself or someone you love overdosing on Opioids, check with your doctor about local regulations for purchasing Narcan.
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If you or someone you know has an Opioid addiction, know there are treatment options available. Contact a treatment provider today to explore your options.
Ashish Bhatt, MD, MRO
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Learn about Dr. Ashish Bhatt
Dr. Bhatt has been Addiction Center's Medical Content Director for more than three years, providing his expertise to ensure quality and accuracy.
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Expert in adult and child psychiatry
Over 20 years of professional experience