Overdose victim
Paramedics take a victim revived with Narcan to the hospital after an overdose in University Heights last year. Courtesy OnScene.TV

Two dozen students at San Diego Mesa College recently learned how to assist someone suffering from an opioid overdose as part of their health classes.

“It’s important to know what an opioid overdose looks like,” William Perno, a prevention specialist with the Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego, told the students.

“Someone suffering an opioid overdose might look like they’re asleep, and they might make snoring sounds. A dark-skinned person’s lips and fingernails may turn gray or ashy. A light-skinned person’s lips and fingernails turn blue. That means they’re not getting enough oxygen.”

Perno also shared information about the opioid epidemic – for instance, four of 10 fake prescription pills seized by law enforcement hold enough fentanyl to be lethal – and instructed students in how to use Narcan, a nasal spray that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid drugs. 

Opioid drugs attach to receptors in the brain and block pain, but the drugs also slow down breathing. A lack of oxygen may follow that causes damage to the brain and other organs, and can be fatal. 

Narcan’s active ingredient is naloxone, a drug that restores normal breathing by blocking opioids from receptors in the brain.

But Narcan isn’t the first step to help, Perno said. He recommended trying a sternum rub on a victim if the students suspect an overdose and can’t wake the person up by shaking them or yelling at them,.

The process: “Make a fist and rub your knuckles hard, up and down the center of their chest. If they don’t wake up, (then) administer Narcan nasal spray.”

But that’s not enough, he said. Even if a victim is revived, they still need emergency care.

“Think of it like Star Trek technology, like a force field,” Perno told the class. “However, the effects are only temporary. When the Narcan wears off, the person may overdose again because the opioid is still in their system. That’s why you should always call 9-1-1 and report an overdose.”

Nationwide, more than 100,000 people die from overdoses every year, and at present most of those cases involve opioids like fentanyl. In San Diego County, there were more than 800 fentanyl-related overdose fatalities last year.

Fentanyl can be in liquid, powder, or pill form. The pills are particularly hazardous because they often look like real prescription medication, according to Lisa Bridges of the North City Prevention Coalition.  

“People get curious. They trust their friends. The problem is their friends don’t know where the pill came from. You can be curious about something and it can cost you your life,” Bridges said.

Bridges and Perno urged students to help if they see someone suffering from an overdose.

“Sometimes people who have been drinking or using drugs are afraid to get involved because they don’t want to be arrested,” Perno said. “Or maybe they call 9-1-1 then leave the victim alone. California’s Good Samaritan Law protects people (who) are trying to help an overdose victim.”

To arrange a Narcan training session, contact Bridges at lbridges@saysandiego.org. To learn more about fake prescription pills, go to https://www.dea.gov/onepill. For help finding treatment for a substance use disorder, call the Access & Crisis line at (888) 724-7240.