Drug Overdose Medication Can Now Be Purchased Over-The-Counter

Emergent BioSolutions, the OTC drug overdose medication maker, said the Narcan nasal spray should be available without a prescription as soon as late summer 2023.

By Kari Apted | Published

Drug Overdose medication

Narcan, the nasal spray version of naloxone, a powerful drug overdose medication that blocks the effect opioids have on the nervous system, will soon be available for purchase over the counter. On Wednesday, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) announced its decision to make Narcan more readily available. It will be sold as a 4-milligram nasal spray in gas stations, convenience stores, supermarkets, drugstores, vending machines, and online.

Emergent BioSolutions, the OTC drug overdose medication maker, said the Narcan nasal spray should be available without a prescription as soon as late summer 2023. Dr. Robert Califf, FDA Commissioner, said in a statement that his agency is encouraging Emergent BioSolutions to get it into stores as soon as possible. Califf added that it should be affordable because the people most likely to need Narcan are also the ones least likely to afford the current prescription cost of $100.

Walgreens, a national drug store chain, was quick to comment on the new availability of the lifesaving nasal spray. “Delivering access to this lifesaving medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose if administered in time is imperative and Walgreens is already working with suppliers to bring this OTC medication to shelves,” said Zoe Krey, a Walgreens spokesperson. The company plans to make the drug overdose medication available in stores and online as soon as it’s available.

Narcan must be administered as soon as an overdose is suspected. If the drug overdose medication is given quickly enough, it can reverse the fatal effects opioids have on the nervous system. Making it easier to get Narcan is a vital part of the FDA’s fight against the opioid crisis as it makes a lifesaving tool available in the crucial first minutes of an overdose.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 564,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2020. The decades-long opioid problem began in the 1990s with prescription medications. In 2010, heroin deaths ramped up as did the need for drug overdose medications.

Since 2013, the number of deaths from synthetic opioids has increased dramatically. The CDC estimates that more than 71,000 people died from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, in 2021. This represents an 18 percent increase over the prior year for the use of these drugs.  

In 2017, the Trump administration first declared the rampant opioid epidemic a public health emergency. The Biden administration has continued to renew the public health emergency every 90 days. Declaring the crisis as a public health emergency gives government agencies more flexibility in allocating funds and resources to drug overdose medication and other crisis solutions.

Narcan nasal spray is usually sold with two devices in a single package. The drug overdose medication should be sprayed inside one nostril of the person suffering the overdose immediately—even before calling 911. If the person is still unresponsive, the second dose should be administered.

Lucas Hill, a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, says that prejudice against drug users may still make people reluctant to buy Narcan over the counter. “Even though the [over-the-counter] transition could theoretically allow Narcan nasal spray to be sold at a gas station, I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see it next to the Pringles chips anytime soon,” he told TIME. Hill also believes that the FDA should make all forms of naloxone—even the injectable type—available over the counter because retail price competition could make drug overdose medication more affordable for all.