Naloxone: The truth about this life-saving drug

The truth about naloxone

Prince, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman are just a few of the 700,000 who have died from an opioid overdose in the last 20 years. No matter the fame or relative anonymity, our peers and family are battling an opioid epidemic. In fact, you may even know someone who is struggling to maintain sobriety.

According to an American Psychiatric Association poll, one in three Americans know someone who is or has been addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers. Nearly half feel it is extremely or somewhat easy to access opioids for illicit use. 

It’s clear the opioid crisis is a complicated problem that requires many solutions. Scientists and health care professionals are working toward solutions. One of those is a medication called naloxone. When used correctly, this drug can reverse the effects of opioids and quickly restore breathing to someone who is overdosing.

This drug is so helpful, that the U.S. Surgeon General has advised the following groups to use naloxone and keep it within reach:

  • Patients currently taking high doses of opioids as prescribed for pain
  • Individuals misusing prescription opioids
  • Individuals using illicit opioids, such as heroin or fentanyl
  • Health care practitioners
  • Family and friends of people who have an opioid use disorder
  • Community members who encounter people at risk for opioid overdose

Serign Marong, MD, a family medicine physician at Banner - University Medical Center Tucson, is experienced in addiction medicine and shares four facts about this life-saving drug.

Fact #1: Naloxone is an Opioid Antagonist

When given quickly during an overdose, the naloxone can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid, which in emergency situations is respiratory depression.  

Besides the emergency situation, when used preemptively, the drug Naltrexone (Vivtrol) can essentially block a person from getting “high.” Furthermore, it can also help those with alcohol use disorders. 

“Many physicians are unaware there are medications to treat alcohol use disorders,” Dr. Marong said. “Drugs like Naltrexone can help reduce cravings by blocking the same opioid receptors in your brain.” 

He adds that this drug isn’t a cure-all and should be used in combination with therapy and 12-step programs like Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous.

Fact #2: Naloxone is Available Over the Counter

Naloxone is available in 48 states in all major pharmacy chains without a doctor’s prescription. In just one year (2017 to 2018), prescriptions for the drug have doubled, but that’s only one dose per 70 high-dose opioid prescriptions. Dr. Marong credits some of this to those who have been longtime users of pain meds who don’t think they need it. 

“Many people feel like they don’t need it because they have been on chronic pain meds for years,” Dr. Marong said. “My wife is a pharmacist, Michelle Marong, Pharm D. She says that many people refuse the prescription given to them. More education and guidance need to be given to providers to help encourage individuals and families to acquire the drug.”

Fact #3: Naloxone Does Not Increase Opioid Abuse

Some have suggested naloxone is a safety net for abusers, but several studies have demonstrated this is not true. Increased naloxone access has shown no increase in opioid misuse or overdoses. “When someone is saved from an overdose, this drug gives them the chance they need to begin recovery,” Dr. Marong said. “Everyone deserves a second chance.” 

Fact #4: Protect and Support a Loved One

Unfortunately, opioid users are not able to self-administer naloxone, but it is easy for a friend of family member to administer it. In addition to drugstores, many states offer free naloxone education programs that teach people how to use naloxone and provide the drug. With opioid addiction, it’s important to remember that this is a disease and is out of your loved one’s control. Be supportive but not enabling, says Dr. Marong. 

Dr. Marong also suggests family members and friends get support for themselves. “Attend an Al-Anon meeting and get the support you may need from others who may be in the same position,” he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, contact our Banner Health Behavioral Health line at 480-448-7500 or call our free Nurse on Call line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 844-259-9494.

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