Inside Naloxone's Growing Role in The Opioid Epidemic

By Dorri Olds 08/02/16

Patented in 1961, the popular opioid antidote has become a household name over the last few years due to the national opiate epidemic. 

Inside Naloxone's Growing Role in The Opioid Epidemic

Americans are dying from drug overdoses at an alarming rate. The numbers shot up to more than 47,000 deaths in 2014. The majority of those fatalities were due to opioids like prescription painkillers and heroin. Prescription opioid deaths quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, and deaths from heroin tripled from 2010 to 2014. Naloxone is a narcotic overdose antidote.

During an opioid overdose, breathing slows down and can completely come to a halt. Naloxone blocks opiate receptors in the brain and can restore breathing. It now comes in an easy-to-use nasal spray, known by the brand name Narcan, or it can be injected into a muscle, vein or under the skin.

Even though naloxone was patented in 1961 and the FDA approved it as an opioid antidote in 1971, many laypeople are just learning about it now. It is not a dangerous drug nor is it addicting. And, even if mistakenly administered to someone who is not overdosing on opioids, it won’t harm them. Many states now allow it to be sold without a prescription.

Unfortunately, as the demand increases, so has the price. According to new report by Business Insider, “A popular injectable version of the drug has gone from $0.92 a dose to more than $15 a dose over the last decade. An auto-injector version is up to more than $2,000 a dose.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote, “The price increases on top of rising demand have caused overall sales of naloxone to nearly quadruple in the last four years.” That translates to $81.9 million in sales last year as compared to $21.3 million in 2011.

The federal government still requires a prescription for naloxone, but that is under FDA review. The New York Times wrote, “Critics say that it gives drug users a safety net, allowing them to take more risks as they seek higher highs,” but the newspaper didn’t name who those critics are and how many of them exist—a question that couldn’t be answered by Google.

Dr. Alexander Y. Walley, a Boston Medical Center addiction medicine specialist countered that argument when he told the NY Times, “A person with an opioid use disorder is by definition using despite harmful consequences … [R]eceiving naloxone not only reverses the overdose, it also reverses the euphoria and withdrawal relief that the opioid user is seeking.”

Administering naloxone can cause immediate withdrawal symptoms—muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even seizures. That is not something that would appeal to any opiate addict. Dr. Walley said the idea that naloxone increases dangerous drug-taking is like saying that seat belts encourage riskier driving.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.