If you had the chance to save someone’s life, you’d do it, right? That’s the simple challenge that the United States Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams, gave the American public on Thursday, urging members of the public to learn how to use the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone and carry it with them.
The advisory, released amid public health warnings that the opioid crisis is worse than ever, implores anybody who uses opioids, as well as friends and family members of people who use the drugs medically or recreationally, to get naloxone and learn to administer it. As Inverse reported in March, doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that emergency hospital visits for suspected opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017. Last week, CDC officials announced that overdose deaths due to synthetic opioids including illicit fentanyl doubled from 2015 to 2016. Opioid overdose deaths overall doubled between 2010 and 2016.
Opioid overdose is typically a quiet process. When a person overdoses on opioids like heroin, fentanyl, or oxycodone, it can be hard to tell when they’ve crossed the line from unconsciousness to toxicity. Their breathing slows and becomes shallow, and eventually, it stops. The process begins in the brain: When a person first takes an opioid, the drug molecules bind to receptors in the brain, like a key into a lock; for the most part, opioids can only bind to opioid receptors, and opioid receptors only allow opioids to bind to them.
But Naloxone is an exception to the rule, binding to opioid receptors without producing the effects that opioid drugs produce. If opioids are the keys that fit into the lock, naloxone is the key that aggressively inserts itself into the lock and snaps off so you can no longer open the door. It reverses opioid overdoses by knocking opioid molecules off of the brain’s receptors.
Naloxone is administered with either a nasal spray syringe or via an injection to deliver the drug as quickly as possible. It binds to opioid receptors quickly, but it doesn’t bind for a long time, so sometimes people need multiple doses. This is especially true if they’ve taken fentanyl, which binds very strongly to opioid receptors.
While drug overdoses can seem strange or unlikely, they’re becoming increasingly common in the U.S. Emergency first responders in most states now carry naloxone, and it’s available at the pharmacy without a prescription in many states, too. The Surgeon General emphasizes that, due to the prevalence of overdose deaths, any person who might be in contact with someone who could overdose ought to have access to naloxone just in case.
“Each day we lose 115 Americans to an opioid overdose – that’s one person every 12.5 minutes,” said Dr. Adams in a statement. “It is time to make sure more people have access to this lifesaving medication, because 77 percent of opioid overdose deaths occur outside of a medical setting and more than half occur at home.”