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What Is Naloxone?

By R. Britton
Updated May 17, 2024
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Naloxone is one of a group of prescription-only drugs collectively known as opoid antagonists. It is used primarily to reverse the effects of narcotics, both legal and illegal. A less common application for naloxone is the treatment of a variety of mental health issues and personality disorders when taken in conjunction with other medications. This drug has a variety of side effects and contra indications and is not recommended for patients with preexisting conditions.

When a powerful narcotic such as morphine, methadone or heroin is used, it travels to the brain and spinal cord via the bloodstream. Once in the brain and spinal cord, the substance attaches to the opoid receptors and very quickly begins to take effect. Narcotics such as hydromorphone, morphine, and codeine are used as strong, rapid relief analgesics. These drugs inhibit the patient’s pain receptors soon after attaching to the opoid receptors, thereby blocking the signals from the nerve and relieving pain.

As an opoid antagonist, naloxone dislodges the opiate or narcotic attached to the opoid receptors and latches itself there instead. In this way, it reverses the effects of the offending opiate. This medication is prescribed to reverse the effects of narcotics — both analgesics and anesthetics — prescribed after surgery, such as morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. It also reverses narcotic induced conscious sedation used in painful procedures when a general anesthetic is unnecessary or impractical. Naloxone is also one of the only drugs capable of reversing the effects of a heroin overdose.

Less commonly, naloxone is used as part of a treatment plan for managing a variety of mental health problems including anxiety disorders, rage, and hyperactivity as well as to stabilize moods and to treat some elements of personality disorders. When treating mental health problems, naloxone is prescribed in combination with other drugs rather than as a standalone treatment. If prescribed alone, naloxone can exacerbate and increase anxiety and other mental health issues.

It should be noted that while naloxone reverses dangerous and unwanted side effects of opiates, it also stops certain positive outcomes. Morphine is one example. When the latter is given to relieve severe pain followed by naloxone, naloxone not only improves lung function and reduces other symptoms such as vomiting or dizziness, but could also interfere with the painkilling ability of the morphine.

In patients with a history of long-term narcotic use, whether legal or illegal, naloxone will produce potentially severe withdrawal symptoms. This medication should not be used with other opoid antagonist medications such as subutex. It is also not recommended for patients with heart, liver, or kidney problems.

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