About Opioid Overdose
Every day, 7,000 Americans are treated in emergency departments for using opioid painkillers in a manner other than as directed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there is one opioid overdose death every 19 minutes (over 74 deaths per day), a number that has quadrupled since 1999. Both patients who are prescribed opioids and individuals who abuse prescription opioids are at risk for overdose because, in addition to mediating pain relief, opioids reduce the rate of respiration. This risk of overdose is dramatically increased by other commonly prescribed drugs (for example, benzodiazepines) and alcohol that act synergistically with opioids, which can lead to respiratory arrest and death. The availability and low cost of highly potent illicit opioids such as fentanyl have led to a dramatic spike in overdose deaths (New York Magazine).
Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is currently used to reverse opioid overdose, but is only effective if administered in time. Naloxone acts to reverse overdose by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and competing with opioids (such as heroin or opioid painkillers) for these sites. This results in a reversal of all the pharmacological effects of opioids, including depressing respiration. The CDC recently recommended co-prescribing naloxone for patients receiving high doses of opioids and for individuals receiving any amount of opioid when coprescribed with a benzodiazepine. Several states, including Vermont and Virginia, have adapted these guidelines and made co-prescribing of naloxone mandatory.