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Drug Spotlight - What’s The Difference Between Naltrexone And Naloxone?

Substance Abuse Of Opioids

The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis in the United States. Overdose deaths from opioids have been slowly on the rise for more than a ten years, and opioid-related hospitalizations have reached dangerously high levels. But what are opioids and how does one avoid their misuse?

Opioids are prescription medications that control pain ranging from moderate to severe. Doctors prescribe them after surgery or injury, but they can also be prescribed for chronic issues. They encompass a large class of medications and illicit substances that include:

  • Morphine
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin

The use of these medications can be dangerous and lead to misuse, abuse, or addiction. This harmful behavior is known as opioid use disorder (OUD).

What Are Opioid Inhibitors?

Naloxone and naltrexone are both opioid inhibitors. They are also called opioid antagonists. This means that they bind to opioid receptors in the brain to block the effects of other opioids. But what’s the difference between naltrexone and naloxone? They may sound and look similar, but the two medications are fundamentally different in terms of how they act in the body and their purpose.

There are a few differences between the two medications. On the one hand, naloxone is an antidote for opioid overdose. On the other hand, naltrexone is used to manage substance use disorders by reducing cravings and the risks of relapse. Let’s consider each medication individually to understand them better.

What Is Naloxone?

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a medication that quickly reverses an opioid overdose. Naloxone is an antidote that can quickly restore breathing in a person if their breathing has slowed or stopped due to an opioid overdose. A study has also shown that Naloxone can be used to reduce neuropathic pain.

In terms of opioids, naloxone can only be used to counteract the effects of heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. It can’t be used to treat opioid use disorders like Naltrexone can. Moreover, it only applies to opioids and doesn’t block substances like alcohol, tranquilizers, cocaine, or amphetamines.

What Is Naltrexone?

Naltrexone is a prescription medication that comes in the form of a pill or an extended-release intramuscular injection. It treats alcohol use disorder and opioid dependence. It also has other uses, including its ability to treat septic shock. Doctors prescribe it in pill form for daily use, whereas a healthcare professional administers the extended-release injectable on a monthly basis.

In terms of its uses, naltrexone helps reduce the risk of relapses as well as cravings. Again, it’s one of the most commonly used medications in treating alcohol use disorder and opioid dependence. Like other medications, it’s most effective when used in conjunction with other rehabilitation strategies like counseling and behavioral therapies. In the long run, it can help maintain abstinence and encourage sustainable recovery. Generally speaking, it is non-addictive and has very low potential for misuse.

What’s the Difference in How Naloxone and Naltrexone are Administered?

Naloxone is available in two primary forms: nasal spray or auto-injector. In healthcare settings, doctors administer it intravenously. Anyone can administer the nasal spray while the person is lying on their back. Doctors administer the injection version through the thigh. It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of an opioid overdose so you know when to administer naloxone. The typical symptoms seen in an opioid overdose include:

  • Pinpointed pupils
  • Respiratory depression
  • Diminished consciousness

These three symptoms are known as the “opioid overdose triad.” Naloxone should be administered immediately if a person is displaying these symptoms. Of course, if you don’t have naloxone on hand, seek emergency medical assistance immediately. Don’t hesitate to call 911 even if you’re not sure in the moment about the person’s symptoms. You could save a life by acting quickly.

What’s the Difference Between Naloxone and Naltrexone’s Effects?

Naloxone has an immediate effect while naltrexone works more gradually. Since naloxone works to block the opioids from a person’s brain receptors, it has to work fast in order to reverse the effects of an overdose. The effects of naloxone usually occur within five minutes of administration. The quicker the medication is administered, the higher the chances of saving a person’s life.

Even though its chemical structure is similar to naltrexone, naloxone is a short-term opioid blocker. Naloxone is a single-dose, fast-acting medication. The medication’s effects usually fade off within thirty minutes and are completely gone after ninety minutes. However, if a person has overdosed on a longer-acting opioid, they may require another dose of naloxone.

How Do the Side Effects of Naloxone and Naltrexone Differ?

All chemical substances create alterations in neurotransmitters, hormones, and physiological functions. Therefore, there are always potential side effects. But overall, the risk of serious side effects from naloxone use is quite low. The risk of harmful effects outweighs the consequences of an overdose, which often results in death. Even if the person is unconscious and the cause of unconsciousness is unknown, naloxone will probably not cause further harm to the person.

There are, however, some side effects to be aware of. Reported side effects of naloxone are often related to acute opioid withdrawal. These include:

  • Body aches
  • Increased heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Runny nose
  • Convulsions
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Appetite loss

For naltrexone, the most common side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Sleeping troubles
  • Enhanced or decreased energy
  • Abdominal pain
  • Toothache
  • Cold symptoms

In sum, opioid inhibitors treat opioid abuse or overdose. For more information on medically-assisted detox and how to start your recovery journey, reach out to a professional at Impact Recovery today.