Narcan for Heroin Overdose: Miracle Cure or a Last Resort?

Yesterday, the FDA has approved a drug called Evzio, a nasal spray version of Narcan, an antidote for heroin overdose. Narcan, also known by its generic name naloxone, is part of a growing public health campaign to reduce deaths from heroin and opioid overdose.

With the recent tragic deaths of beloved celebrity stars such as Cory Monteith and Philip Seymour Hoffman still fresh in our minds, the Narcan movement has generated national attention. The FDA must have been feeling the pressure, since Evzio was reviewed under FDA’s expedited, fast-track priority review and was approved two and a half months ahead of the planned completion date.

How does Narcan Stop Heroin Overdose?

Heroin attaches to opioid receptors in the nervous system, suppressing brain activity and causing a high. Taking too much heroin, however, can suppress brain activity so much that you stop breathing entirely.

Narcan is an opioid antagonist, meaning it attaches to the same receptors as heroin does. So, if Narcan and heroin are both in your body at the same time, Narcan will attach to the receptors and kick heroin off, thereby blocking the heroin overdose.

In essence, it “reverses” the symptoms of overdose. Without heroin’s depressant effects to shut down the nervous system, the person regains consciousness and begins breathing again.

Is Narcan effective?

Although the effects of Narcan only last 20 to 90 minutes, it is a very effective life-saving treatment when used for opioid overdose.

For decades, only health care providers and EMTs have been able to give Narcan, but now people argue that access should extend to those who need it most—drug addicts and their family and friends.

Family and friends are usually the first on the scene, minutes before the paramedics arrive. Since brain cells will begin to die after just four minutes without oxygen, every second counts. When someone overdoses, Narcan can definitely save their life.

Since January 1, California became one of the 17 states that allow family and friends to carry Narcan. With the recent federal approval, Narcan will soon become available nationwide.

The downside to Narcan Accessibility

Opponents argue that Naloxone will only give addicts a false sense of security. In an effort to empower those who genuinely care, are we just enabling the risk-taking behaviors that lead to overdose in the first place?

But perhaps the real drawback of Narcan is not the behavior of the addict, but the mindset of family and friends. As a highly effective drug with a proven success rate, it’s easy to let the benefits of this drug overshadow its limitations. Narcan can save lives, but it can’t treat addiction

As Narcan becomes more accessible in California and across the nation, these three reminders can help keep our optimism in check.

1. Narcan is given as the last resort.

Narcan may be the antidote for a heroin overdose, but it doesn’t prevent someone from overdosing again in the future, and it is certainly not the cure for heroin addiction. Rather, Narcan is the last resort, given when the situation is dire enough to warrant its use. Like CPR, this is a life-saving measure that you hope you never have to use.

2. Narcan does not guarantee lasting change.

While Narcan has the power to save lives, it does not have the power to change lives. At the most, Narcan offers another chance in life—but only to those who choose to seek help and recovery instead of continuing in their addiction. Narcan gives you another chance to change your habits, but it doesn’t guarantee you will sieze that opportunity to change.

For some, a near-death experience may be enough to cause them to consider seeking help—their “rock bottom.” But the very nature of addiction makes it difficult for anybody to want to quit on their own. As the most addictive drug in the world, heroin is one of the most difficult drugs to quit on your own.

3. Narcan is not a substitute for early intervention.

When we have a plan Z, we tend to forget about the 26 better plans in front of it; the knowledge of a back-up plan can unconsciously induce half-hearted participation in the first and best plan we have.

In a same way, knowing we have Narcan can decrease the urgency for early intervention. We approach other plans with less enthusiasm and we forget that we—as family and friends—can intervene before they reach rock bottom.

Although family and friends cannot force someone to change, you can encourage and support the decision process. You can stop enabling the addict. You can entreat them get treatment through an intervention. You can raise their rock bottom.

Sometimes, you may even need to “kidnap” your loved one and bring him to treatment yourself, which was how one of our guests began his recovery.

Heroin overdose happens everday, and Narcan certainly works when that happens, but having Narcan on hand is not the only thing you can do for an addicted loved one. You don’t have to wait for an overdose to get them help.

If you have any questions about how you can help your loved one overcome addiction, call us at 1.707.348.4874.