What is naloxone?

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains how a "save shot" works in an actual heroin overdose.
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    CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains how a "save shot" works in an actual heroin overdose.

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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains how a "save shot" works in an actual heroin overdose. 01:55

Story highlights

  • Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose
  • Since 1996, naloxone has reversed more than 26,000 overdoses

(CNN)The drug naloxone is sometimes called a "save shot" or a "rescue shot" because of its ability to bring someone back from an overdose. Brand names for naloxone are Narcan and Evzio. It has long been used in hospitals and by emergency medical technicians, but there is now a movement to expand access to it and get it into the hands of first responders as well as drug users and their family members.

How does it work?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include legal painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs, such as heroin. Opioids work by attaching themselves to the body's natural opioid receptors and numbing pain. They can also create a sense of euphoria in some people. However, at the same time, they can slow breathing.
    When your body is in pain, neurotransmitters such as endorphins attach to the opioid receptors in the brain or other organs to numb the sense of pain. Opioid drugs mimic that reaction. However, with too much of an opioid, the body overdoses. Naloxone can literally kick the opioids off the receptors and bring someone back to breathing.
    When someone overdoses, naloxone can be directly injected into the muscle or squirted into someone's nose.

    How effective is naloxone?

    Naloxone is extremely effective and can start working in minutes, depending on the dosage and potency of the drug taken. For more powerful opioids, such as fentanyl, it make take several doses. Naloxone is not addictive and has few side effects.
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    Harm reduction groups and needle exchanges have been distributing it since 1996. Since then, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 26,000 overdoses have been reversed.
    The drug works on someone only if there are opioids in their system already. It cannot prevent an overdose and cannot work on any other type of drug overdose.
    However, the effects of naloxone can wear off in 20 to 90 minutes, so the idea is to rescue someone from an overdose and get them medical attention immediately.

    Where can I find naloxone?

    Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow medical professionals to prescribe or dispense naloxone. Both CVS and Walgreens drugstores are also making naloxone available without a prescription in at least 20 states across the country.
    In February, the White House proposed $1.1 billion to fight the opioid overdose epidemic, including $500 million to help states expand prescription drug overdose prevention, increase treatment and expand access to naloxone.