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How does an overdose occur?

Opioid overdose can occur when a patient misunderstands the directions for use, accidentally takes an extra dose, or deliberately misuses a prescription opioid or an illicit drug such as heroin. Also at risk is the person who takes opioid medications prescribed for someone else, as is the individual who combines opioids — prescribed or illicit — with alcohol, certain other medications, and even some over-the-counter products that depress breathing, heart rate, and other functions of the central nervous system.

How to Avoid Opioid Overdose

  • Take medicine only if it has been prescribed to you by your doctor.
  • Do not take more medicine or take it more often than instructed.
  • Call a doctor if your pain gets worse.
  • Never mix pain medicines with alcohol, sleeping pills, or any illicit substance.
  • Store your medicine in a safe place where children or pets cannot reach it.
  • Learn the signs of overdose and how to use naloxone to keep it from becoming fatal.
  • Teach your family and friends how to respond to an overdose.
  • Dispose of unused medication properly.

What is Naloxone?

Naloxone (Narcan) is an antidote to opioid overdose. It is an opioid antagonist that is used to reverse the effects of opioids. Naloxone works by blocking opiate receptor sites. It is not effective in treating overdoses of benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanax, or Klonopin), barbiturates (Seconal or Fiorinal), clonidine, Elavil, GHB, or ketamine. It also is not effective in treating overdoses of stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines (including methamphetamine and Ecstasy). However, if opioids are taken in combination with other sedatives or stimulants, naloxone may be helpful.

Where Can I Get Naloxone?

In 2014, Pennsylvania made it legal for family and friends of opiate users to obtain naloxone prescriptions. Any physician can prescribe naloxone. Some counties (such as Allegheny County) have issued a standing order for naloxone which allows anyone to obtain it directly from a pharmacy without a prescription. Make sure to check with your pharmacist to see if she dispenses naloxone. Currently, most Pennsylvania pharmacies do not dispense naloxone, but the list of pharmacies who do is growing.

For more information, see the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.

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