Naloxone is a synthetic opiate antagonist that competes for the same opiate receptors in the brain as heroin, opium and narcotic painkillers. The drug (brand names include Narcan, ReVia and Depade) counters the effects of opiate use including euphoric highs, pain relief and respiratory decline, and it produces similar effects with alcohol abuse making it a tool for recovering alcoholics. For recovery purposes, naltrexone helps some individuals more than others, and side effects might occur, but the medication also has emergency applications during opiate overdoses.
Naloxone and Opiate Overdoses
Hospitals, detox centers and first responders utilize naloxone as a medical aid to counter opiate overdose. By binding to opiate receptors, the drug helps reverse the overdose process. Routes of naloxone administration include intravenous, intramuscular, oral and nasal, and the drug usually produces no noticeable effect when taken by people who are not on opiates.
The Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Project is a partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In evaluating the drug’s efficacy, the Journal of Urban Health in 2010 looked at DOPE data involving naloxone applications to opiate injection overdose, which included the following:
- Nearly 2,000 people were trained and prescribed naloxone as a precaution against overdose.
- Twenty-four percent of this group returned for a refill, and 11 percent reported using the drug during an overdose.
- Eighty-nine percent of the overdoses in which the drug users took naloxone successfully reversed the overdose.
- Eighty-three percent of the people who reversed overdoses credited the naloxone for the reversal.
- Less than 1 percent of the individuals reported any serious side effects from the medication.
The study added that opiate users typically have a window of one-to-three hours between the overdose injection and death, yet less than half of people who overdose opt to engage emergency medical services. Many might delay getting help believing the problem will pass or fearing that a 911 call will expose their substance abuse. Naloxone is particularly helpful because it is a legal, non-scheduled, non-addictive drug that can reverse an overdose. Heroin and painkiller addicts should keep the drug handy for emergencies, but the real goal should be addiction recovery, and naloxone can help with this as well.
Naloxone and Addiction Recovery
As explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2009, naloxone blocks neural receptors involved in opiate- and alcohol-related reward. Though it helps with recoveries, naltrexone is not a detox drug that rehab centers can use to reduce opiate and/or alcohol withdrawal symptoms. In fact, taking the drug can initiate opiate withdrawal symptoms in a matter of minutes. Rather, naltrexone drug therapies should begin about 10 days after an addict stops using or drinking and made it through the withdrawal symptoms. The naltrexone regimen commonly lasts about 12 weeks. Naltrexone can help recovering addicts in several ways, including the following:
- It makes the brain believe that the substance cravings have been satisfied.
- Naloxone reduces the neurobiological demand for opiate and alcohol reward.
- The drug provides particularly helpful aid during the early months of addiction recovery.
Patients should not increase, decrease or purposely skip a dose unless directed by a medical professional.
Potential Naltrexone Side Effects
Despite the possible benefits of naloxone, WebMD notes several potential side effects including the following:
- Discomforts like nausea, dizziness, anxiety, headaches, constipation and insomnia
- Less common symptoms like cramping, pains, rash, aches and runny nose
- The potential to cause liver damage when consumed in large quantities
- Confusion, hallucinations and blurred vision that require immediate medical attention
Medical supervision for naltrexone use is important to reduce risk, and patients need to inform their doctors of any drug allergies. Likewise, people should avoid taking the drug if they have hepatitis or kidney/liver problems or are breastfeeding or pregnant.
Substance Abuse Recovery
Naloxone is an aid for overdose and recovery, but lasting recoveries require more thorough treatment. The drug is a valuable adjunct to a comprehensive set of rehab therapies, which can include the following:
- Integrated screening and treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders
- Behavioral therapies that improve mental processes and maladaptive beliefs
- Motivational therapies that help induce personal catalysts for change
- Life skills training such as anger/stress management and conflict resolution
- Non-narcotic pain treatment for recovering addicts with chronic pain issues
- Tools to recognize, avoid and neutralize substance cravings and triggers
- Relapse-response strategies for setbacks, struggles and sidetracks
- Aftercare resources such as counseling, support groups and recovery sponsors
An overdose is the most obvious sign of a substance abuse disorder, but potential addicts should take steps to avoid such a potentially lethal emergency. Professional treatment produces the most successful recoveries.
Addiction and Recovery Help
Our admissions coordinators can provide assistance 24 hours a day on our toll-free helpline. We can provide information, discuss treatment options and look up local rehab centers, and if the addict has health insurance, we can check the policy and explain its benefits. If a potential overdose is taking place, call 911 immediately for emergency services, but people who want to avoid an overdose or another emergency should pursue professional help. We are available to help anytime, so please call now.