During 2010, more Americans died from an overdose of prescription opioids than from an overdose of heroin: 16,651 and 3,036, respectively, estimates the World Health Organization. When an overdose of pain medications or heroin occurs, there is an antidote, naloxone, which can quickly reverse the symptoms and save a person’s life. This year naloxone, which is also known as Narcan, will become available without a prescription at Walgreens pharmacies in 35 states and Washington, D.C., the drugstore chain announced yesterday.

Opioids include heroin and prescription drugs, including popular painkillers such as hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), and codeine. All of these drugs affect the region of the brain that regulates breathing. In high doses, then, opioids can cause respiratory distress. Most fatal overdoses are caused when a person combines an opioid with alcohol or sedatives. Three signs, which doctors call the opioid overdose triad, indicate an overdose has occurred: Pinpoint pupils, unconsciousness, and respiratory depression.

Naloxone comes in the form of an injection or nasal spray and it reverses the effects of an overdose. Naloxone only works if a person has opioids in their system; the medication has no effect if opioids are absent. Last week, naloxone became available over the counter at Walgreens pharmacies throughout the state of New York; later this month naloxone will be introduced, prescription-free, in Indiana and Ohio. (Click here to see if the antidote will become available in your state.)

Since 2007, heroin overdose deaths have been increasing. Heroin deaths in 2014 exceeded 10,500, more than five times the rate occurring in 2002, as counted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By providing greater access to naloxone, Walgreens hopes to avert future deaths, still, the drugstore chain has taken an additional step in the fight against drug abuse.

Disposal Kiosks

Walgreens also announced yesterday it will be installing medication disposal kiosks in more than 500 drugstores in 39 states and Washington, D.C. This program is intended to reduce the misuse of medications — including opioids and other controlled substances. The disposal kiosks will allow anyone to freely and conveniently dispose their unwanted, unused, or expired prescriptions. The kiosks will be available during regular pharmacy hours, with installation having already begun in California and expected completion of more than 500 Walgreens locations at year end.

During 2014, 6.5 million Americans misused a prescription drug as estimated by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Most people who misuse prescription meds are given them or take them from a family member or friend. Many people understand this, still it isn't easy to find a disposal location in many states. Walgreens, then, is making it easier to clean out your medicine chest.