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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Naloxone can save someone

Published: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Health Department columnist

Some in our community belong to a club they never wanted to join. It’s a club of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles of all income and education levels. What they have in common is that they know a family member who uses opioids for pain management or is addicted to them. The possibility of their loved one taking an unintentional overdose and dying is a daily fear.

What’s naloxone? Also known as Narcan, it’s a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose when administered in time. And the good news is that it is available now to those at risk of overdose and for family members who have a loved one who may be at risk for overdose and unintentional poisoning.

If you’ve ever taken hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine or codeine for pain, then you’ve used an opioid. They are commonly prescribed because they are effective in relieving many types of pain. While many people benefit from using these medications, prescription drugs are frequently diverted for improper use, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

What’s also concerning is the number of unintentional poisoning deaths related to these drugs. In North Carolina, this number has increased by more than 300 percent, from 291 in 1999 to 1,140 in 2011, according to the NC Injury and Violence Prevention Branch. If current trends continue, unintentional poisoning deaths will surpass motor vehicle deaths as the leading cause of injury death in North Carolina by 2017.

We are very aware of this problem in Henderson County. Substance and prescription drug abuse was one of three top health priorities determined by the county’s 2011 Community Health Assessment. One channel for addressing this problem is HopeRx, Henderson County’s Project Lazarus initiative. It is based on the Project Lazarus Model, which uses a community-based approach to reducing the overuse and misuse of opioids. Launched in Wilkes County in 2008, Project Lazarus was a response to extremely high drug overdose death rates in that county.

In 2007, Wilkes County had the third highest drug overdose rate in the nation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hoping for similar results, HopeRx has increased education efforts with community organizations and churches. In addition, they have been working to increase awareness of the proper handling and disposal of medications and offering pill-drops for community members to dispose of their medications.

There are many reasons why overdoses happen. Pain patients may not have gotten or understood the instructions from their doctors or pharmacists. Others may be purposely abusing drugs that were prescribed for someone else. Or an individual may combine opioids—prescribed or illicit—with alcohol, other medications and even over-the-counter meds that depress breathing, heart rate and other functions of the central nervous system.

Tolerance and loss of tolerance to these drugs also factor into the overdose risk. When someone uses an opioid regularly, their body becomes accustomed to the drug and needs a larger or more frequent dose to continue to experience the same effect. And if someone stops taking an opioid after long-term use, they may experience serious adverse side effects, including overdose, even if they take an amount that caused them no problem in the past.

When an overdose happens, the number one sign is unresponsiveness. Other signs include not breathing, turning blue, deep snoring, vomiting, gasping or gurgling. The only viable option when someone is experiencing an opiate overdose is to call 911, initiate recuse breathing and administer naloxone, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

That’s why this news about the availability of naloxone is so important. Currently, many people are not aware of naloxone or that a kit can be prescribed to them. To get the message out, HopeRx is providing information that will be available during the N.C. Apple Festival at the Pardee Hospital, Park Ridge Health and Wingate booths downtown. Stop by and learn about this important tool that can save someone.

How do you get a kit? The Free Clinics Community Pharmacy in Hendersonville is offering Naloxone Nasal Spray Kits by prescription at free or reduced rates ($15 fee or $3 for The Free Clinics’ eligible patients). Education about using the kit is essential and required. To get started, talk to your family doctor for more information and a prescription. Then call (828) 697-8453 to register.

Expanding the availability and use of naloxone is an important key to changing the number of unintentional poisoning deaths. Drug overdose deaths are preventable. It’s more than worth the effort to obtain a kit to keep someone you know alive.

To learn more about HopeRx, our community-based prescription drug abuse initiative centered on education, prevention and treatment, visit http://hope-rx.org/.

Kimberly Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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Department of Public Health • 1200 Spartanburg Highway, Suite 100 • Hendersonville, NC 28792 • (828) 692-4223