Heroin Overdose-Reversing Drug: A Closer Look

John Krinjak

Updated 7 months ago


Governor LePage announced his support yesterday for a plan to provide Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of a heroin overdose, to family members of users.

In an unexpected shift, Governor Paul LePage is now supporting the use of Narcan by family members of heroin users – with a caveat.

“They’d be required to get the proper training to administer the drug, and there’d have to be some sort of waiver from the person receiving the drug that it’s okay,” said LePage.

So what is Narcan?

“It’s a medication that binds to the same receptors as opiates, and can reverse the effect,” said James Hildebrand, an emergency physician at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Hildebrand says in cases of overdose, a person’s breathing often slows dramatically.

“And by giving the Narcan, you can very quickly improve their respiratory status,” said Hildebrand.

Paramedics say the drug can be a lifesaver.

“What we do immediately is start breathing for the patient, and then we administer the drug,” said Rick Petrie, a paramedic and executive director of Atlantic Partners Emergency Medical Services.

For paramedics, that means an injection, but for family members of addicts, it would likely be in the form of a nasal spray. In either case, timing is critical.

“Once the breathing stops and the heart stops, the drug is not going to help you at all,” said Petrie.

ER doctors we spoke to say Narcan can buy precious time in case of an overdose, but caution family members not to think it’s a replacement for medical treatment.

“If you have someone that’s in such a serious medical condition that you need to give them this potentially lifesaving medication, the next step is to call 9-1-1, because they still need to come and see us,” said Hildebrand.

Petrie says the drug is only part of the solution to a complex problem.

“If we don’t work on prevention and reduce the number of cases where people are overdosing, we can have all the Narcan in the world and people are still going to die,” said Petrie.

But there appears to be little doubt that making it more available could save lives.

“It’s got a very long-standing record in terms of its effectiveness as well as its safety, said Hildebrand.
On whether the benefits of giving Narcan to family members outweigh the risks and costs of providing it, Petrie said, “I think the bottom line is if you ask that question to the one parent who administers it to the one child who had a respiratory rate of four and was going, that the answer to the question is yes.”


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