Digging Deeper into the Opioid Epidemic: Narcan Saves Lives, But Addiction Can Continue

Jan 10, 2018

Narcan is the brand name for naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote.
Credit narcan.com

There’s no question the overdose antidote Narcan has saved the lives of numerous heroin and opioid addicts across Central New York.  In the next part of our series on the epidemic, seasoned paramedics say it can be a blessing…and a curse.

For most of us, a near death experience from a serious health issue or an accident would force a change in lifestyle or behavior.  But Director of Operations with TLC ambulance Lon Fricano says for addicts who might have just overdosed on heroin, they feel they’re going to die if they don’t get that next fix.

"It's an irrational thing.  Your brain is in the grip of an evil genius that knows everything you know and has something you want.  It's inside working on you all the time.  So, even though you might have just overdosed, stopped breathing, someone administered Narcan, the next thing on your agenda is 'I have to to get some more.'"

Credit cdc.gov

But Fricano says there’s a problem:  Narcan only works on a heroin or opioid overdose, and typically not the fentanyl that’s frequently mixed in. 

"There are some doses of fentanyl, carfentanil out there, that there isn't enough Narcan in an ambulance to revive you.  You go into immediate catastrophic cardiovascular collapse.  If you were in the emergency room, they couldn't help you."

While he’s glad Narcan is saving lives, Fricano says it’s a double-edged sword. 

"The good news is lives are being saved by civilian administration of Narcan.  The bad news is that we've lost that metric.  They're not calling 911, so we don't know how many overdoses are actually occurring."

He says without reliable overdose data, it’s hard to tell if prevention messages or other interventions are working.  If a life is saved, the challenge might be getting the addict into recovery…which isn’t the same for everyone, and can last for life.

"People relapse.  Relapse is part of recovery.  It's a long process.  This stuff does so much damage to the central nervous system that it takes 3 to 5 years for your brain chemistry to begin to return to a quasi-normal state.  Even then, you'll always have that little voice in the back somewhere."

In the final part of our series:  Trying to eliminate the shame and stigma of addiction.