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Medically Reviewed

How Does Narcan Work?

- 9 sections

Medically Verified: July 2, 2024

Medical Reviewer:

Sahil Talwar, PA-C, MBA


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Opioids are a class of drugs that are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. While they are effective in managing pain, they are also highly addictive. If you regularly abuse opioids, you are at risk of experiencing a life-threatening overdose.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), opioids were responsible for 81,806 overdose deaths in 2022.[1]

Because of how frequently opioid overdoses occur, it has become a public health emergency. Thankfully, there is a medication that can reverse and block the effects of an opioid overdose. This medication is called Narcan and is available for free in many states.

If you notice someone overdosing on opioids, you should immediately call 911. After contacting for help, you can begin administering Narcan. Most often, Narcan available to the public comes as a nasal spray, making it much easier to use in an emergency.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What Narcan is
  • How to spot an opioid overdose
  • How to use Narcan when someone is overdosing

What is Narcan (Naloxone)?

Narcan is the brand name for a medication called naloxone, which is an opioid antagonist.[2] It is available for free in many states and you can also purchase it. Because of the opioid overdose crisis, you can obtain Narcan without a prescription at most drug stores or online.

Naloxone works to reverse both illegal and prescription opioid overdoses. As an opioid antagonist, it works by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. This means it can reverse the effects of an opioid drug like hydrocodone, oxycodone, heroin, and even fentanyl. Sometimes, a single dose of naloxone is enough to save a person’s life.

While Narcan can prevent someone from dying from an opioid overdose, it does not work to reverse other types of drug toxicity. For example, using Narcan on someone who is overdosing on benzodiazepines will have no effect.

If you are unsure what someone is overdosing on, you can still administer Narcan to be safe. Narcan will not have any negative effects if they are not suffering from an opioid overdose. There is no risk in using Narcan if you do not know what someone has taken.

Signs of an Opioid Overdose

If you are going to carry Narcan to assist in saving a person’s life, it’s important to be aware of the signs of an opioid overdose.

The symptoms of an opioid overdose include:[3]

  • Slowed or shallow breathing
  • Pinpointed/small pupils
  • Falling asleep and losing consciousness
  • Limpness of the body
  • Pale, blue, or cold skin
  • Choking or gurgling noises
  • Slowed heart rate

If you notice someone displaying the signs of an opioid overdose, it is important to call 911. While administering Narcan might save their lives, they will still require emergency medical services. Additionally, medical professionals can help the individual obtain long-term treatment and medical care for opioid misuse.

How to Use Narcan

When you obtain Narcan, you should seek guidance from medical professionals and opioid overdose prevention organizations on how to use it properly. That said, we will go over step-by-step instructions on how to use the medication effectively. There are many steps involved in responding to an overdose in addition to administering naloxone.

When using Narcan to respond to an opioid overdose, you should:

Check for a Response

The first thing you should do when you notice the signs of an opioid overdose is check for a response.

To do this, you should:[4]

  • Shake the person and shout to wake them up
  • If they do not respond, rub your knuckles into their chest bone for 5 to 10 seconds

If the person is not responding, you need to call 911 or have someone near you make the call.

Call 911

When someone is experiencing the symptoms of an opioid overdose, 911 should be contacted immediately. If you are worried about getting the person into trouble, there are Good Samaritan laws to protect people from drug charges in the event of overdoses. These laws were created to make people comfortable with contacting 911 for emergency medical intervention.

Administer Narcan

Once you have checked for a response and called 911, you should begin administering Narcan nasal spray. There is an injectable version of the medication, but you most likely have the nasal spray if you got it without a prescription.

To use Narcan nasal spray, you should:[4]

  • Take it out of the box and peel back the tab to open the nasal spray
  • Hold the nasal spray with your thumb on the bottom and your first and middle fingers on either side of the nozzle
  • Tilt the person’s head back and use your hand to support their neck
  • Gently insert the nozzle in the nostril until your fingers are touching the person’s nose
  • Spray into one nostril and wait 2 minutes to see if they respond
  • After 2 minutes pass, administer the second dose into the other nostril
  • Roll the person onto their side and place them in the recovery position
  • Call 911 immediately if you have not already contacted them

You can continue to give additional doses of Narcan every 2 to 3 minutes until the person is responsive or medical attention arrives.

Rescue Breathing

If the person is still not responding after administering Narcan, you should begin rescue breathing. To do this, tilt the individual’s head back, lift their chin, and pinch their nose. Then, begin providing two breaths into their mouth and continue with one breath every five seconds.

The person’s chest should be rising and falling with each breath you provide. If this is not occurring, make sure their head is tilted back and their mouth is clear. Continue rescue breathing until help arrives.


Even if the Narcan reverses the overdose, the individual will still require medical treatment. This is because the side effects of Narcan may lead to immediate withdrawal symptoms. Emergency medical personnel can treat these symptoms and ensure the person does not have a secondary overdose once the naloxone wears off. After all, some opioids can last longer than naloxone, potentially resulting in another overdose if medical treatment is not sought.

Find Help for Opioid Abuse and Addiction

If you or a loved one suffers from opioid addiction, it’s time to seek help. At The South Carolina Addiction Treatment Center, we offer evidence-based and compassionate care to every one of our clients, increasing their shot at long-term recovery.

Contact us today for more information on how our opioid addiction treatment center works.


  1. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Drug Overdose Death Rates 
  2. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Opioid Overdose Reversal Medications (OORM) 
  3. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Opioid Overdose
  4. How to Use Narcan Nasal Spray for an Opioid Overdose