Opioid overdose reversals using naloxone in New York City by people who use opioids: Implications for public health and overdose harm reduction approaches from a qualitative study

Int J Drug Policy. 2020 Apr 15:79:102751. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102751. Online ahead of print.


Background: Adverse reactions to naloxone, such as withdrawal symptoms and aggression, are widely recognised in the literature by pharmaceutical manufacturers and clinical practitioners as standard reactions of individuals who are physically dependent upon opioid drugs following the reversal of potentially fatal opioid overdose. This paper seeks to provide a differentiated view on reactions to naloxone that may have important implications for public health and harm reduction approaches.

Methods: Analyses from a qualitative investigation embedded within a 5-year Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) examined the risks and benefits of Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution (OEND) training models (brief or extended training) in various populations of people who use opioids in New York City. The qualitative experiences (obtained through semi-structured interviews) of 46 people who use opioids and who were each involved in the delivery of naloxone, during 56 separate overdose events that occurred throughout 2016-2018, were studied. Situational analysis and inductive content analysis of interview data focused upon overdose reversals in an attempt to provide understandings of the various adverse effects associated with naloxone from their perspective. These analyses were supplemented by data sessions within the research team during which the findings obtained from situational analysis and inductive content analysis were reviewed and complemented by deductive (clinical) appraisals of the various physical and psychological effects associated with the overdose reversals.

Results: People who use opioids recognise three distinct and interconnected outcomes that may follow a successful opioid overdose reversal after intramuscular or intranasal administration of naloxone. These outcomes are here termed, (i) 'rage' (describing a wide range of angry, hostile and/or aggressive outbursts), (ii) 'withdrawal symptoms,' and (iii) 'not rage, not withdrawal' (i.e., a wide range of short-lived, 'harmless' conditions (such as temporary amnesia, mild emotional outbursts, or physical discomfort) that do not include rage or withdrawal symptoms).

Conclusion: Physical and psychological reactions to naloxone should not be understood exclusively as a consequence of acute, opioid-related, withdrawal symptoms. The three distinct and interconnected reversal outcomes identified in this study are considered from a harm reduction policy perspective and are further framed by concepts associated with 'mediated toxicity' (i.e., harm triggered by medicine). The overall conclusion is that harm reduction training programmes that are aligned to the policy and practice of take home naloxone may be strengthened by including awareness and training in how to best respond to 'rage' associated with overdose reversal following naloxone administration by people who use opioids and other laypersons.

Keywords: Mediated toxicity, harm reduction; Naloxone effects; Opioid overdose reversal; Opioid withdrawal symptoms; Rage; Take home naloxone.