The SSA’s Rob Calder and Natalie Davies describe naloxone.

Naloxone rapidly reverses the effects of opiate-type drugs (e.g. codeine, heroin, methadone, and fentanyl), including the respiratory depression that can be fatal. Naloxone comes in two forms – a nasal spray (such as NARCAN), and a pre-filled syringe which can be injected into a vein, muscle, or under the skin.

How do you deliver naloxone?

Anyone can administer naloxone in an emergency, but there are restrictions on who can obtain a naloxone kit as it is a prescription-only medicine in the UK (correct at the time of publishing in 2022).

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs advised that naloxone’s prescription-only status warranted review after concluding in 2012 that wider provision could result in a reduction in drug-related deaths in the UK.

In 2015, an exception was created to enable drug services in England and Wales to order and distribute supplies of naloxone to people at risk of overdose or people likely to witness an overdose, such as family, carers or hostel staff.

Is naloxone effective?

Naloxone is the standard medical treatment for overdoses. As a medication, naloxone’s ability to reverse an opioid overdose is not in question.

There are more questions around the implementation of naloxone distribution programmes. These centre on whether naloxone can be given to enough people so that it is present when someone overdoses, and whether, in those cases, people are confident to administer it.

A 2016 review assessed the safety of take-home naloxone programmes and their impact on overdose-related deaths using the nine ‘Bradford Hill criteria’. This well-established method can help to establish the likelihood of a ‘cause and effect’ relationship where it is not possible to allocate participants at random to an intervention versus a comparator, for example because it would be impractical or unethical. Based on 22 studies, reviewers concluded that the community-based provision of the overdose antidote naloxone was likely to be an effective way of preventing overdose-related deaths. Overall, take-home naloxone led to improved survival rates among programme participants and reduced heroin overdose mortality rates in the community, with only a low rate of adverse events reported.

Equality and diversity considerations

In 2004, experts convened by the World Health Organization judged the risk–benefit profile to be strongly in favour of naloxone distribution to prevent opioid overdose deaths, but also cautioned that this “does not address the underlying causes of opioid overdose”. This highlighted the many and complex issues that surround substance use problems including poverty, homelessness, health inequalities and abuse.

For pregnant women, the British National Formulary published by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises to “use [naloxone] only if potential benefit outweighs risk”. Guidance produced by Release and The Naloxone Steering Group in 2019 sought to challenge the barriers to administering this potentially life-saving treatment to pregnant women, writing: “The reality is that pregnant people are at risk of death in the event of an overdose, naloxone has the potential to save their life, and it can be safely administered in pregnancy”.

Where can I read more?

  • Drug and Alcohol Findings published a comprehensive piece on how naloxone became the great hope for curbing the rise in overdose deaths.
  • Release worked with The Naloxone Steering Group to produce guidance on best practice for the provision of naloxone for people who might experience or witness an opioid overdose.

by Rob Calder and Natalie Davies

The opinions expressed in this post reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the SSA.

The SSA does not endorse or guarantee the accuracy of the information in external sources or links and accepts no responsibility or liability for any consequences arising from the use of such information.


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