What is Narcan?

What You Need to Know About Narcan

The opioid epidemic that is currently gripping the United States is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Narcan is one of the essential tools helping to turn the tide on the frontlines of this battle against addiction. Between prescription painkillers, increased supplies of unusually pure heroin, and illegally manufactured fentanyl, the risk of opioid addiction has become quite grave. Narcan is the brand name for a nasal spray that contains naloxone. Naloxone is a drug that can block the effects of opioids in the brain. This makes it a very effective tool for reversing a deadly overdose. It’s no exaggeration to say that naloxone nasal spray has saved thousands of lives in just the last several years. 

Narcan Past and Present

Naloxone has been around for more than 40 years, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that new formulations could be rapidly deployed by non-medical personnel. That is perhaps the most significant development. It used to be that to reverse an overdose, naloxone had to be administered by syringe, and only medical professionals had access to it. In the early days of the opioid epidemic, not every ambulance or paramedic even had naloxone on hand. A patient might not get it until they reached the hospital, when it would often be too late to save their lives. Finally, in 2018, the FDA approved the Narcan nasal spray. This was a game-changer, to put it lightly. With the nasal spray, anyone had a way to rapidly administer naloxone and reverse an overdose. No syringe or medical expertise is necessary. A year later, it became even easier and more affordable to access when the FDA approved the first generic naloxone nasal sprays

Understanding Opioid Overdose

In understanding how naloxone nasal spray helps, it’s best to start with what an opioid overdose entails. Among other effects, opioids suppress respiration. That is, opioids slow breathing. When breathing slows too much or stops, the body and brain cease to get enough oxygen. This is how opioid overdoses most often kill. Opioids, like all drugs that act on the brain, work by entering sites in the brain called receptors. You can think of a receptor as a keyhole. Only specific keys will fit that keyhole. Once the key is in there, an effect can be “unlocked.” Opioid receptors exist in the brain for several reasons, one of which is that the body produces natural opioid-like compounds. Opioid drugs work by exploiting these receptors to stimulate the body to release more “pleasure chemicals,” which reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being. When too many of these receptors are occupied by opioids, dangerous levels of these chemicals accumulate and suppress respiration. This deprives the brain and other organs of oxygen. We all know what the tragic results can be from there. 

How Does Narcan Work? 

Naloxone nasal sprays work by quickly getting this lifesaving medicine into the brain without the need for a syringe or particular medical expertise. Naloxone is what is called an opioid antagonist. Remember those opioid receptors we mentioned earlier? The “keyholes”?  Well, naloxone also fits those opioid “keyholes.” The difference is it doesn’t activate them the way opioids do. So, you can think of naloxone as occupying those keyholes and even knocking the keys out to keep opioids from exerting their effects on the system. This is how naloxone nasal sprays can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose. 

Narcan is especially helpful because:

  • As an intranasal medicine it acts very quickly.
  • Because it’s administered nasally, a person needs very little training to use it properly and no medical license.
  • It’s more affordable than ever thanks to generics and easy to carry.
  • A prescription is no longer required for naloxone nasal spray

What Else Do I Need to Know? 

There are a few things about the use of naloxone nasal sprays that are important to understand. While these medicines can and do save lives, they don’t make it “safe” to abuse opioids. They don’t work to safely reverse an overdose every single time. Now that the extra powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl is found increasingly in street heroin and even fake pain pills, the danger is more significant. It may take several doses of Narcan to work, and there are no guarantees. 

  • You should seek the basic training in the use of this medicine.
  • If you know people who use opioids in large amounts, it’s a good idea to keep Narcan on hand.
  • Understand that having this medicine doesn’t make it OK to abuse opioids.
  • Naloxone nasal sprays do not always work and especially with fentanyl, it may take several doses. 
  • Nothing in this article should be taken as medical advice. Ask a doctor if you’re unsure of anything.

Getting Help 

NYC Addiction Resources is ready to help you or your loved one get the life-saving treatment for opioid addiction they deserve. We are available to help with treatment placement, advice on intervention, and questions about Narcan or anything else related to treatment or recovery. Call 718-208-4202 to talk to us now.