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For users, Narcan has become a lifesaver

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Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 6, 2005.

Baseball star Jeff Allison probably owes his life to a drug called Narcan, which brought him out of an overdose coma in July at the Union Hospital emergency room. 

Numerous opiate addicts' lives are saved every year in the same way. Narcan, a brand name for the drug naloxone, has proven so effective, some communities outside Massachusetts have made it available to outreach workers and drug users on the street. 

Without this new drug, police and medical personnel say, the number of fatal drug overdoses in the county would be much higher. 

When a heroin user overdoses, his breathing becomes labored, slows and may stop. His blood pressure drops and he may feel sleepy and fall into a coma. He could die in a matter of hours. 

An injection of Narcan can reverse the effects of heroin within minutes. It rushes through the bloodstream and knocks heroin molecules off the body's pleasure receptors. 

Other drugs, such as methadone and suboxone (buprenorphine), that are used in nonemergency settings do the same thing. They knock heroin off receptors and sit there themselves. 

The difference is that methadone and suboxone are mild, less-addictive versions of opiates, known as "agonists." Narcan is an "antagonist" with none of opiates' stimulating effects. It sends the user into immediate withdrawal, with no cushion from the fall. 

Narcan, which first got FDA approval in 1971, is effective in treating overdoses from heroin, OxyContin, morphine, Vicodin and other opiates.

"You will save lives using Narcan," said Michael Levy, clinical director at CAB Health and Recovery Services. "There's no doubt about it."