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Sandy McCray of the Aiken Center for Addiction holds a sample of Narcan, a narcotic that can revive people suffering an opioid overdose.

A new medication called Naloxone is being distributed nationwide to prevent deaths from opioid overdoses.

Narcan, the nasal spray version of Naloxone, is now being distributed at the Aiken Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Services. It was provided by a federal grant to help combat the opioid epidemic. 

Narcan helps remove blockages in the brain swiftly so people suffering from an opioid overdose can breathe, leading the FDA to brand it a "life-saving" medication.

When the Aiken Center first considered distributing Narcan, staff had concerns about potential side-effects.

"I was initially skeptical about it," said Margaret Key, executive director of the Aiken Center. "But now, to me, it's as close as you can get to a miracle medicine that rescues people who really are on the verge of death with an opioid."

Practice Manager Sandy McCray said the Aiken Center will be giving Narcan free of charge to people who cannot afford it. The center is not currently requiring people to prove they are low-income or without insurance to obtain Narcan.

Naloxone was historically a prescription drug, but was made an over-the-counter medication in response to the opioid epidemic due to its usefulness and relatively low risk factors.

Because Narcan is non-addictive, people who are seeking the revival medication can obtain it from the Aiken Center anonymously. Distributions start Friday and will take place every Friday at the center from 2-4 p.m. and appointments are not necessary.

Opioids are drugs that can slow or stop a person's breathing by repressing the central nervous system. They are also extremely addictive. The U.S. is in the midst of a nationwide opioid epidemic that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, with overdoses among the leading cause of fatalities. 

McCray said opioid use has significantly impacted Aiken County, and abuse of them is "increasing" in the area.

"Most of the time, it stems from them having an injury, having back problems and being prescribed percocet, hydrocodone," McCray said. "And it spirals out of control."

To people who suffer an overdose from opioids, Narcan can be the difference between life and death.

"If they don't get the Narcan, there's a possibility that they will die," McCray said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Naloxone is an opioid antagonist – meaning that it binds to opioid receptors and can reverse and block certain effects of other opioids. Administering a dose of Narcan will restore normal respiration to a person whose breathing has slowed or stopped as a result of overdosing on heroin or prescription opioid pain medications in a matter of minutes.

The CDC credits Narcan with being "critical" in limiting overdose deaths in the opioid crisis. But studies conducted by the organization found that Narcan prescriptions were vastly outnumbered by opioid prescriptions, especially in rural areas, and distribution through grants and programs is still needed on a larger scale.

While Narcan has the ability to revive someone, McCray said people should still call 911 and seek immediate medical assistance for anyone who has suffered an overdose.

"The drugs are still in your system," McCray said. "It's not reversing the overdose, it's just assisting with revival."

Because Narcan binds to opioid receptors while reviving patients, it may cause minor withdrawal symptoms (such as headaches and sweating) in people with opioids in their systems. According to the FDA, Narcan has no effect on people without opioids in their systems.

"We learned that it can really do no harm," Key said. 

Key said the distribution of Narcan is part of an overall change taking place at the Aiken Center. Because addiction is a complex issue that is often influenced by chronic pain, injury or mental illness like depression or anxiety, the center is shifting to a model of care that is more medical in nature.

"We're trying to be 21st century, nimble, able to handle really complex situations," Key said.

Narcan is just the first step, but it's not a solution to addiction.

"It is a rescue medicine, but it should also be a gateway – the opening of the door – to get someone into treatment," Key said.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.