The misuse of prescription and illicit drugs is truly an epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that more than 100 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every day. Many more experience medical emergencies that have life-changing effects. That’s why medications like Narcan are so incredibly valuable.
When administered to someone experiencing an overdose, Narcan can block the effects opioids have on the brain, helping revive patients and save lives. Best of all, we’ll explain how Narcan is packaged and how it can be administered by anyone at any time, adding to its promising life-saving capability.
This article will explore how Narcan works and why medical professionals and loved ones of addicts worldwide are using it. We’ll also explore the best treatment pathways a person should seek after using Narcan and how these programs can help someone suffering from drug addiction recover successfully.
Understanding How Opioids Impact the Brain
Before we can explain exactly how Narcan works and its advantages in treating an overdose, you must first understand how opioids impact the brain. The brain controls the body, and chemical and electrical reactions control the brain itself. Those reactions lead to thoughts, feelings, and actions throughout the body.
Opioids, or narcotics, were developed as pain management medication. They work to mask pain in the body by instead triggering reactions in the brain that lead to sensations of relaxation and pleasure.
Opioids work by attaching to receptors in the brain where they trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical that the brain uses to signal pleasure. When your body senses the presence of dopamine, you’re generally experiencing something very enjoyable.
The dopamine response has been critical throughout human evolution, especially in the early centuries. Before humans became so self-aware, dopamine release (i.e., “pleasure”) was necessary to teach us what was good for survival and should be done again. In other words, dopamine tells us when something is good and helps us commit those good things to memory.
Because opioids trigger the dopamine response, they make a person feel relaxed and happy even if they are experiencing pain, which is why they’re considered highly effective as painkillers. The problem, of course, is that the dopamine response is addictive by nature, which makes opioids extremely addictive and likely to be misused.
Types of Opioids
Many prescription opioids exist, including codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine. You’ll find these opioids are sold under multiple brand names. They come in varying strengths, which is supposed to give doctors the flexibility to prescribe the right amount depending on the level of pain a patient is experiencing.
Some of these opioids are much stronger than others–and some also prove more dangerous, with more severe side effects. As an example of just how powerful these opioids can be, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Furthermore, just 2 milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill the average adult.
Beyond prescription opioids, which are produced legally and given by doctors to patients with pain problems, some street drugs also fall into the opiate family. Heroin is one example of an illicit opiate. Like prescription opioids, heroin and other drugs work the same way–by binding to receptors in the brain and triggering the release of dopamine.
Dangers of Opioids
Like prescription opioids, illicit opiates like heroin vary in strength. The danger is that people often take these drugs without understanding how strong they are or how much represents a life-threatening dose. Additional complications can also arise out of opiate use, even if a person doesn’t take a fatal dose.
For instance, relaxed people tend to breathe slower, so the breathing rate tends to slow down after taking opioids. However, taking too much of an opioid drug can make a person breathe so slowly that they cannot get enough oxygen into their brain and faint. After fainting, their breathing will continue to slow down, and this can lead to death.
Whether prescription or illicit, any opiate drug can lead to an overdose, and they all too often do. Aside from being deadly, they’re highly addictive, so Narcan is a bright light for professionals working to treat drug dependence and addiction.
How Narcan Works in Opioid Users
Narcan is the prescription form of the drug naloxone, and it’s known as an opioid agnostic. Opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain and triggering the release of dopamine. Narcan stops opioids by blocking the receptors, so that the opioids cannot bind to them and, as a result, no dopamine is released.
In previous years, the only way to take naloxone was through an injection. This meant medical staff would need to draw the right amount into a vial and find a healthy vein to inject into. In other words, only qualified professionals could inject the drug, and even then, there were risks.
Narcan differs from naloxone in one critical area: how it’s packaged. Whereas naloxone would need to be measured and administered, Narcan is packaged in singular doses, where each bottle is one dose. Plus, instead of being injected with a needle, Narcan is sprayed inside the nasal cavity. This greatly speeds up the administration of the drug.
Because Narcan does not require measuring out a dose or using needles, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proclaimed that anyone, even those with no medical training, can administer Narcan to someone who needs it. To emphasize the ease of use, the FDA even went so far as to say that a child could reasonably administer Narcan into a person’s nasal passages.
How Long Does Narcan Take to Work?
According to the manufacturer, once administered into the nasal cavity, Narcan will bind to receptors and block opiates within 3 minutes. Narcan will continue being effective for two hours.
Depending on the severity of the overdose, one dose might not be enough. A second dose of Narcan may need to be administered if the person does not regain consciousness after the first dose, so Narcan is often packaged and sold in two bottles (two doses). A second dose may also be given if a person revives but starts to exhibit symptoms again.
When Should I Give Someone Narcan?
Because opioids have a strong relaxing effect by nature, it can be difficult to tell whether someone has overdosed or if they are just experiencing deep relaxation following drug use. Some addiction experts suggest using a harsh rubbing technique on the sternum of someone unconscious to help discern whether they’re possibly experiencing an overdose.
The sternum rub is straightforward: press the knuckles of one hand against the person’s breastbone and begin rubbing it up and down with some force. This is painful, and the person should wake up. If the person does not come to, they might be experiencing an overdose, and administering a dose of Narcan might be helpful.
For those who live with a loved one addicted to opiates, it’s recommended that they keep Narcan around to help prevent tragedy. If the person experiences an overdose, they should administer Narcan right away and wait by their side. With emergency responders on the phone, they’ll receive instructions on what to do next.
If you do not have Narcan on hand and you think someone is experiencing an overdose, your first step should be to call 911. Most ambulances have Narcan on board, and they know how to administer it and monitor an individual on the way to the hospital. If necessary, they can also offer additional doses while in transit to the hospital.
What To Do After Taking Narcan
The FDA states that anyone can give Narcan thanks to the simple administration process and the fact that it’s packaged in dose form, with one dose in each bottle. However, immediately following the administration of Narcan, it is absolutely critical that medical professionals step in.
Narcan can wear off before the opioids completely leave the person’s system in many cases.
This means the Narcan will stop being effective, and opioids may begin being processed again. As soon as Narcan stops working, those opioids in the body can latch on to receptors and create another influx of dopamine. So, even after multiple doses of Narcan, a person can still lapse into an overdose.
Another reason why seeking medical help is so important after taking Narcan is that it works so well at blocking opiates in the brain that it can send a person into drug withdrawal. Symptoms of drug withdrawal can be severe and include pain in the abdomen, vomiting, shaking, cramping, and intense drug cravings.
Opioid withdrawal is uncomfortable, and it can even prove life-threatening. So, simply taking Narcan is not enough to save a life. Medical professionals should be brought in as soon as possible to assist with the person’s stabilization and recovery.
The Clinical Toxicology journal suggests that a person stays at a hospital for at least an hour after they’ve received Narcan. This period enables medical professionals to check for relapse symptoms and provide other therapies that can help soothe the discomfort during opioid withdrawal, ensuring there are no life-threatening side effects.
Following the initial observation and stabilization, the person should seek a drug recovery center to help with the drug detox process. Like the immediate withdrawal period after stopping opioid use, the detox process can be very uncomfortable and prove dangerous if not managed by professionals.
Does Narcan Treat Drug Addiction?
Narcan is a truly life-saving drug, with witnesses of those who have taken it describing in vivid detail as they watched loved ones go from pale and barely breathing to alert and lively within moments of receiving a dose. Every year, thousands of overdoses are treated with Narcan, representing thousands of instances where an individual may have otherwise died from drug misuse.
Of course, while Narcan has the power to save someone’s life when they are experiencing an overdose, it’s important to recognize that it is not some miracle cure. Narcan’s effects are short-lasting, and they do not change how the brain works. In other words, Narcan cannot and will not change a person’s thoughts about drugs, although the entire overdose experience has set many on the path to recovery.
Narcan will do nothing to prevent another overdose. It’s only through ending drug use that a person can ensure they will never find themselves in the same situation again. That’s why seeking a drug recovery program is the wisest next step.
When the administration of Narcan halts an overdose episode, an individual often comes face-to-face with what addiction really costs them. Loved ones in the room are often in a panic as they watch someone so close to slipping away from them, while the individual themselves is often jarred awake to be met with worried faces. Terror is a common emotion, but fearing another overdose is not enough to cure a drug addiction in itself.
Opioids are among the most strong and addictive drugs on the market, and while recovering users are strong, no one is strong enough to overcome centuries of the dopamine response and all of the addictive effects that are hard-wired into our brains and bodies. Seeking help is the best and bravest decision anyone can make.
What Happens In a Drug Recovery Program?
When an individual joins a drug recovery program to seek help for opioid abuse, one thing is certain — they will be met with hopeful, supportive, and welcoming arms. Drug recovery centers are free of judgment and filled with knowledgeable professionals who have the tools necessary to help people recover from some of the strongest drugs out there.
Recovery begins with the admission process, where you’ll sit down and discuss your drug usage and lifestyle in confidentiality with a professional. Right after that is the medical detox program, which is a necessary but uncomfortable step on the path to recovery. The detox program allows you to move through withdrawal symptoms, which can be severe, while under the care of medical professionals.
Medical detox allows individuals to get help with managing the symptoms of withdrawal, allowing them to achieve a drug-free lifestyle without experiencing life-threatening side effects or losing their hope and motivation. The detox process typically takes two weeks to complete, and it can be made easier with the help of detox drugs.
Following the medical detox, a person enters a rehabilitative program where they gain access to people and therapies that will help them understand what caused their addiction and what motivates them to change their lifestyle for good. Often, this process teaches people life-saving methods that will help them avoid relapse, express their feelings, and seek out a strong support system.
Exercise, balanced nutrition, sound sleep, and self-management of emotions are just some of the skills individuals will learn in a drug recovery program to help them lead a happy and full life. Choosing the right drug recovery program is really the most critical and daunting step in the entire process.
Learn more about Zinnia Healing’s substance abuse services.
Get The Help You Need to Recover from Opioids
At Zinnia Healing, we believe everyone can find the strength within themselves to seek out help. The help our professional team can provide can make the difference between a successful recovery or a life-threatening relapse. If you or a loved one is experiencing opioid addiction, reaching out to a treatment center is the bravest thing you can do.
While drug treatment isn’t easy, Zinnia Healing’s caring staff and research-backed therapies help ease the symptoms of withdrawal and enable an individual to dig deeper into their reasons for opioid misuse and inspiration for recovering from it.
Zinnia Healing treatment programs support lasting changes through a proven combination of meditation and fitness practice, group and one-to-one discussions, and guidance on personal wellness, emotional health, and goal-setting. In your time with our team, you’ll be able to find yourself again and get on the path to a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle that you’re excited to pursue.
Are you ready to learn more? Contact Zinnia Healing to discuss our treatment programs and how you can take the first step toward your road to recovery today.