What you need to know about the over-the-counter heroin overdose antidote

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There’s an epidemic and a major push to stop it from being so deadly. Heroin is plaguing people in big cities across the country. Chicago is among the worst.

This week is National Opioid Awareness Week. What anyone who knows a heroin user needs to be aware of is an antidote that can immediately stop a heroin overdose. And it’s as readily available as the drug itself.

Seven days a week, the Chicago Recovery Alliance hands it out for free  out of a mobile unit that travels through the city.

“We’ve reached over 70,000 people and received almost 8,000 reports of pure reversal,” says Dan Bigg, Director of Chicago Recovery Alliance.

Naloxone – also known as Narcan -- has been on the market for 45 years. And it’s a workhorse. Stephan Kamenicky has used it more than 100 times.

“I got pretty good at it. A lot of times when somebody was overdosed, I’d have them up and about before the paramedics even got there,” he says.

“It’s one of the few pure antidotes in all of medicine,” Bigg says. “We want it to be available we want it to be readily used when necessary.”

It’s an idea shared by many fighting the heroin epidemic. Illinois high schools stock the overdose medicine in the nurse’s office. Treatment centers hand it out readily and it’s on the shelf at your local pharmacy. But just this week, Walgreens and Mariano’s began selling it over-the-counter. No prescription needed. Just walk up to the pharmacist and ask.

“You’re not going to be judged.  You are going to be educated,” says Elizabeth Seybold, manager of clinical care at Mariano’s.   “And most importantly you’re going to be trained on the proper use.”

The spray is released into the mucous membranes in the nose.  Then it’s about a 2-5 minutes to wait to see if the patient responds. If not, there’s another dose of the spray in the package and you can try it again.

But don’t be fooled.  Naloxone lasts between 30 to 90 minutes in the body depending on the dose. Heroin lasts longer, especially forms combined with fentanyl, a common practice to prolong the high,  so you need to call 911 as soon as possible before the patient experiences more breathing problems once the Naloxone wears off.

Ambulances have carried the medicine for years and it’s on board some fire trucks.  They have an injectable form and the nasal spray.

Despite the availability, some challenges remain. Naloxone is expensive, especially for young people who may not have access to insurance information. And pharmacists are just beginning to get the word Naloxone can be distributed without a prescription, so many we called said they had to check. Keep pushing and know your rights. It could be the difference between life and death.

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