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How Does Narcan Work?

Narcan, or naloxone, is an overdose antidote. It is a prescription drug typically carried by emergency responders and sometimes by private citizens trained in its use. It comes in the form of an injection or a nasal spray and usually brings someone out of overdose within five minutes.

Naloxone is an an opioid antagonist. That means it binds to the same opioid receptors as heroin or other opioids but has none of the effects. Naloxone is more strongly attracted to opioid receptors, which allows it to actually displace the opioid causing the overdose. Once the naloxone displaces the opioid, it occupies the receptor and prevents the opioid from reattaching. This allows the central nervous system to start functioning normally again and breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure can return to normal.

If you think someone is overdosing, naloxone should be administered as soon as possible. There is no harm in giving to someone who isn’t overdosing, although withdrawal will begin immediately. Naloxone is an emergency drug. It can bring someone out of overdose, but he will still need medical treatment.

Naloxone is not a magic cure. Someone who stops breathing for several minutes may still suffer damage to the brain or other organs. You may have to breathe for the overdosing person until help arrives or the naloxone starts working. Although naloxone starts working quickly, five minutes is a long time to deprive the brain of oxygen, especially if heart rate and blood pressure are depressed as well.

Extra potent drugs like fentanyl may require several doses of naloxone. Naloxone is a short-acting drug, which means it starts working quickly–which is essential–but it also stops working quickly, usually after about 20 minutes. Most opioids are depleted enough by this time that the immediate danger of overdose has passed but fentanyl and its analogs are so potent that what remains can still be dangerous. If this is the case, the overdosing person may need another naloxone shot.

Nearly 60,000 people died from overdose last year and most of those deaths involved opioids. Naloxone is a valuable medication that can save lives but it is an absolute last resort. If someone close to you might need naloxone, then she certainly needs treatment for addiction. Do what it takes to keep her safe now, but also do what it takes to keep her safe in the future–convince her to get help. Gardens Wellness Center provides medically assisted detox to make withdrawal as painless as possible. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.