As Over-the-Counter Narcan Hits Store Shelves, Access Problems to the Life-Saving Overdose Reversal Drug Persist

Narcan nasal spray in use. (Courtesy of Emergent)Narcan nasal spray in use. (Courtesy of Emergent)

The opioid overdose reversing medication Narcan will soon be sold nationwide without a prescription at major drug stores and grocery stores, as well as online retailers.

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Narcan, which comes as nasal spray and was initially approved for over-the-counter sale by the Food and Drug Administration in March, is expected to hit shelves at stores like Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy and Walmart as soon as next week.

The life-saving medication is expected to retail at stores for $45.

Over-the-counter access to Narcan comes as community organizations and public health departments continue to distribute the medication for free as part of their work to address the staggering number of opioid overdose deaths in recent years.

Two thousand people in Cook County died of an opioid overdose in 2022, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. Of those deaths, 91% involved the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been behind the increasing number of overdose deaths in recent years. In 2015, for instance, the county had 676 opioid overdose deaths with 15% involving fentanyl.

“The more Narcan we can get into the community, the better,” said Cook County Department of Public Health Chief Operating Officer Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck. “If it’s low cost or if it’s no cost, obviously it’s better, but certainly, having it there at some cost, I think improves the availability of this life-saving drug.”

Here’s what you need to know about Narcan and what barriers still exist to accessing the life-saving medication.

How Do You Use Narcan?

Narcan can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose within minutes.

Signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose include unusual sleepiness or unresponsiveness, slow or absent breathing, slow heartbeat or low blood pressure, cold and clammy skin, tiny pupils, or nails and lips turning blue.

Here’s how to administer Narcan in the case of a suspected overdose, according to Narcan’s website:

  1. Lay the person on their back and tilt the head up.
  2. Insert device into either nostril and press plunger firmly.
  3. Call 911 immediately after giving the first dose. Continue to administer doses as needed and wait with the person until help arrives.

Naloxone, which is the name of the drug in which the Narcan brand is based, is safe to use even if opioids aren’t present, so it’s always best to use it if you think someone is overdosing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who Should Carry Narcan?

People who use drugs and people who know someone who uses drugs, such as friends and family, should know about Narcan and how to get it, Hasbrouck said.

In addition, West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force Director Lee Rusch said because fentanyl can be found in other drugs, it’s important for people who use drugs to carry Narcan even if they’re not experiencing addiction.

“It isn’t just somebody who has an opioid use disorder that’s at risk,” Rusch said. “A one-time use could kill somebody that never used it before or didn’t know it was in the drug they were using.”

Rusch also said he thinks it’s important for bars and entertainment venues to have Narcan.

To What Extent Will Over-the-Counter Narcan Improve Access?

“Any way we can get more Narcan out, the better,” Rusch said, but added that over-the-counter Narcan isn’t a viable option for many of the community members his organization serves.

West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force outreach teams and partners work in communities where many people don’t have the money to buy Narcan at any cost or might not even feel comfortable going to a drug store, Rusch said.

The organization typically gives away anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 doses of Narcan per month to individuals, Rusch said. The task force orders Narcan directly at no cost through the Access Narcan program from the Illinois Department of Human Services.

The West Side Heroin Opioid Task Force, founded in 2016, works to educate Chicago’s West Side residents on preventing drug overdose, working mostly in the Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and West Humboldt Park communities.

While retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens are accessible to many communities, it’s also important to couple that with community outreach and ensuring people can still get Narcan at either little to no cost, Hasbrouck said.

Vsit the CCDPH website to learn more about Narcan, how to recognize and respond to an overdose, how to order and use fentanyl test strips and get treatment.

Contact Eunice Alpasan: @eunicealpasan | 773-509-5362 | [email protected]

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