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Narcan® 101: What You Need to Know to Save Someone’s Life

by Ashley Smith

The opioid crisis in America is continually increasing the number of overdose deaths every year, devastating the lives of people across the country. Ideally, someone with a substance use disorder should receive professional medical treatment to manage their addiction, but due to the stigma and nature of the disease, many continue to misuse opioids. For people who use these drugs, the risk of overdose is a high probability Only a small inconsistency in dosage could cause someone’s breathing to suddenly stop. Because illicit opioids or street drugs are so unpredictable, some people can fall victim to a batch of drugs that is stronger than they are use to, or worse, laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl. The unpredictability and danger of an opioid overdose does not always stop an addict from using them. The addicted brain cannot make rational decisions to stop drug use due to the harmful consequences, therefore understanding the lifesaving effects of the medication Narcan is crucial.

What is Narcan®?

Narcan® is a brand name for  the generic drug naloxone. Naloxone is a compound that can stop an opioid overdose as it’s happening. It comes in two forms: an injection that is administered intravenously (by medical personnel) and a nose spray, and has a shelf life of about 18 to 24 months. It’s a fast-acting opioid antagonist, which means it quickly binds to opioid receptors in the brain, reversing and blocking the effects of opioids in the system. When someone is overdosing, their breathing is hindered because of the way opioids can slow down the central nervous system, causing decreased lung function. Narcan® can restore normal breathing quickly within two to five minutes, saving the person from a potential overdose death. Narcan® is a life-saving measure that can be taken if someone is overdosing before emergency services arrive on the site

It’s important to note that Narcan® works for opioids only. It will not reverse an overdose caused by other drugs such as benzodiazepines, methamphetamines, cocaine, or alcohol. If someone has ingested a combination of opioids and other drugs, Narcan® can be a life-saving measure as it can be effective in helping slow down or stop the overdose until the person can receive emergency medical help.

Narcan® cannot be used as a drug and is not addictive. It has been used for decades by medical professionals and the nose spray variety is now being made available to the public in attempts to prevent future opioid overdose deaths.

How Does it Work?

Narcan® can be considered as a temporary remedy to opioid drug overdose. A common misconception is that overdoses happen immediately when someone takes too much of a drug, which is not the case. An overdose can happen hours after someone has ingested them. An opioid overdose occurs when a person is unresponsive and not breathing or struggling to breathe. Signs of an overdose: 1. Does not wake up even if you shake them or call their name 2. Slow or no breathing 3. Blue, grey or pale skin color. If an overdose is suspected and someone has access to Narcan®, it should be administered immediately. Calling 911 is the next step to take as Narcan® usually takes about two to five minutes to work through the system. If the person does not respond to the Narcan® within 3-5 minutes, a second dose should be administered if available. CPR should be performed while the second dose takes effect until EMTs arrive. It’s crucial to get oxygen into the person’s system as quickly as possible.

Narcan® can wear off within 30-90 minutes, so it’s imperative to get emergency medical services immediately for the person who has overdosed.  Once the Narcan® wears off, they may experience overdose symptoms again. Narcan® is just one step to helping prevent an overdose death; medical attention should always be the immediate next course of action.

It’s important to follow the directions on the Narcan® nasal spray.  There are several different applicators, so be sure to ask your pharmacist or medical provider to instruct you on proper usage.

Who Has Access To Narcan®?

Previously, only medical professionals had access to this powerful and fast-acting opioid corrective medicine, but now it’s available to the public. It’s recommended that anyone who often uses either prescription or illicit opioids should have Narcan® on hand. If someone has a friend or loved one who has an opioid addiction or is taking opioids for long-term chronic pain, it’s also a good idea to have access to Narcan® just in case.

Narcan® can be purchased at the pharmacy without a prescription. In some states, people are required to participate in “good Samaritan” training every two years to be able to buy Narcan®. These training sessions teach people how to respond to an overdose and how to dispense Narcan® properly. People with opioid addiction can also be given prescriptions for Narcan® if they are involved in MAT, or medication-assisted treatment, based on their health history and personal needs.

Narcan® is a life-saving drug that is a crucial part of opioid addiction harm-reduction. The opioid crisis in America has reached dire levels, and many people are at risk of dying from preventable overdose deaths. With the help of medicines like Narcan®, those who are struggling with their opioid addiction can live to see another day and be given another chance to seek treatment and change their lives for the better.

For more information about this life-saving drug and online training, visit Many communities offer Narcan(R) training free of charge, qualifying people for their “good Samaritan” training. Check with your local community center, hospital, or library for available seminars.



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Medically Reviewed By:

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

Health Care Resource Centers Clinical Team

The Clinical Team at Health Care Resource Centers is our team of physicians and medical directors within the organization. HCRC is a CARF accredited organization and has been providing addiction treatment services for over 32 years in the New England area.

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