Narcan, one of the brand names for the generic drug Naloxone, is a life-saving drug, but it’s one that too many people don’t know enough about. Unlike many of the drugs we talk about here at FHE Health, our concern with Narcan is that more people should have access to it, not less.
What Is Narcan?
Narcan is one of a few brand names for a drug known as Naloxone (Evzio is another brand name version of the drug), which is used by first responders to reverse the effects of an overdose to any drug in the opiate family, natural or synthetic.
These drugs include:
- Analgesic pain relievers like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin
- Heavy opioid sedatives like fentanyl and morphine
- Illicit opiates like heroin
- Other synthetic opiates like carfentanil and sufentanil
When someone begins to overdose on one of these drugs, the user is given Naloxone via an injection or nasal spray, and the overdose is temporarily stopped, giving responders enough time to access more comprehensive medical intervention.
How Does Narcan Save Lives?
When used, opioids bind to receptors in the brain, producing chemicals that relieve pain and chemicals that produce pleasure. The latter is the reason why people develop substance use disorders after only a short period of time using these drugs. Every substance under the opiate umbrella is extremely addictive, and generally, addicts begin to use more and more of their drug of choice to counteract the tolerance that gradually builds as they use.
When overdose occurs, it’s because of the opiate’s ability to affect other body systems. If the user takes enough of one of this family of drugs, the systems of the body that regulate blood circulation, heart function and breathing are affected to the degree that they stop breathing. As of 2016, 13 in 100,000 people were dying of an opioid overdose, illustrating the deadly nature of these drugs.
Narcan (naloxone) is what’s known as an opioid antagonist. This means that the drug isn’t an opioid, but it targets the same receptors in the brain, meaning that when used, Narcan blocks the opioid from affecting the brain, temporarily reversing the effects of the overdose on the respiratory system. This restores the user’s breathing and allows the person who administered the Narcan to get the user into a stable, medical treatment.
Other Uses of Naloxone
Naloxone is also used in many treatment programs all over the country as part of a drug called Suboxone. Suboxone represents the new age of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), replacing methadone for people addicted to heroin and other opiates. In this drug — commonly prescribed in strips that the user places under their tongue — naloxone is used mixed with the key active ingredient, buprenorphine. This is because buprenorphine is an opioid agonist and is addictive on its own. Because naloxone can bring on the symptoms of acute withdrawal, it exists in suboxone so that patients use it as directed.
Who Uses Narcan?
Discussing the issue of who administers Narcan actually splits into two discussions: who does use the drug and who should?
In the status quo, emergency personnel and EMS first responders are the primary parties involved in administrating Narcan. Police and fire departments have to receive special training instructing them how to use the drug and how to identify someone in need of Narcan in parts of the country where the opioid crisis has been especially severe.
These movements to get Narcan into the hands of more emergency personnel appears to be making an impact, as data involving EMS first responders using Narcan show that usage jumped by 75 percent between 2012 and 2016.
Who Should be Using Narcan?
As for the people who should have the drug handy and know how to administer it? Preferably everyone. While drug overdoses are much more common in some parts of the country, you truly never know when someone near you is going to need intervention using a specialized medication.
According to Shatterproof, an opioid addiction advocacy group, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory in April of 2018 about Narcan and other drugs containing Naloxone. Basically, Adams recommended that more people should be trained to use Naloxone to save lives and carry it on their person whenever possible.
Why Narcan, Specifically?
While some others involve training a person to administer an injection of the drug, Narcan is given via a simple nasal spray that takes little to no training to master.
The drug comes in a small, single-use container. When an overdose is occurring, all the responder has to do is take the spray canister out of the packaging, put two fingers on the plunger, place the nozzle into the opening of the victim’s nostril and squeeze to discharge the plunger.
What Does Narcan Cost?
So, in practical terms, what do you have to do to get access to Narcan? Technically, Narcan is a prescription drug, so you can’t just walk into a store and buy it, but it is becoming more available. For example, in 2017, Walgreen’s announced that they were going to start carrying Narcan and other naloxone drugs in the store. Narcan by itself isn’t heavily regulated because of the fact that it’s safe and effective, with the potential to save lives.
The rising out-of-pocket cost of Narcan has been a hot-button issue as it has with other life-saving pharmaceuticals like the EpiPen. Just buying Narcan at a pharmacy with no subsidies in place will cost around 140 dollars, but most local governments (especially in areas where overdoses are common) sponsor community Narcan training where volunteers can access the drug for free. Most insurance plans cover Narcan as well, but getting pre-approval may be difficult when buying Narcan as a preventative measure.
The Bottom Line
It’s clear that Narcan and other drugs containing naloxone have a high potential to save lives, and as death rates from opioid overdoses continue to rise, more people need to have access to both the drug and information about how to use it.
For more information on providing medically assisted intervention during an overdose, contact FHE Health today.