Narcan, now sold over the counter at Walgreens nationwide, can save the life of opioid-overdose victims.

By Lynya Floyd

It’s not a comfortable topic. But if you asked someone what the number one cause of death in Americans under 50 is, they’re probably likely to say car crashes or even gun violence. And they’d be wrong. Drug overdose is the top cause, taking tens of thousands of lives each year. And it’s reached epidemic levels.

That’s due, in part, to the recent rapid rise in opioid abuse and deaths, a problem President Donald Trump called a national health emergency this week.

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In an effort that may help change those numbers, Walgreens is now stocking a life-saving medication called Narcan in all of its more than 8,000 pharmacies nationwide. The FDA-approved nasal spray can be used in the event of an overdose to reverse the effects of opioid drugs, like prescription painkillers and heroin.

“This is a huge deal from a public health standpoint,” says Sean McGann, MD, an emergency physician at NorthShore University Health System in Chicago and spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “Not only is it another big step for the continued recognition of how serious the opioid crisis is in America but it also gives the general public access to this medication which has the potential to save lives.” Walgreens will have Narcan available without a prescription in the 45 states in which that is allowed.

Beyond the pharmacy, an increasing number of schools across the country (from New Mexico to Ohio to Rhode Island) are also stocking the medication so school nurses will have immediate access. In Connecticut, Narcan is now available in all 14 Milford Public Schools—including the elementary level, according to an NBC report.

While some argue that the increased availability of the medication will encourage or make people more comfortable with drug use, others note the benefits of the life-saving drug. “It is rapid acting and can bring someone back from being near death,” explains McGann. “It can take someone who is not breathing, or only breathing a few times a minute and cause them to breathe again.”

The biggest benefit may be to families who have been touched by opioid addiction. “Having this medication on hand and being trained to administer it is a good thing for them. It could mean the difference between life and death for loved ones,” says McGann. “I don’t see naloxone becoming a medicine cabinet staple next to the bandages and ibuprofen, but awareness of this drug and this addiction crisis is important knowledge for everyone.”