There’s no getting around the fact that illicit fentanyl is so widespread it’s becoming hard to avoid. Over the summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about accidental exposures to fentanyl patches in children, which could cause overdose in kids who, thinking it’s a sticker or a bandage or a temporary tattoo, may put the patches on their skin or in their mouths. 

Research shows that opioids are now the leading cause of poisoning deaths in children, and fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid, Sarah C. Nosal, MD, FAAFP, board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells Motherly. According to the CDC, the rate of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2021 was nearly 22 times the rate in 2013. 

Thankfully, Narcan (naloxone) can be used to reverse opioid overdose—and it’s now available as an over-the-counter nasal spray, leading harm reduction experts to recommend that everyone—including people without medical training—start to carry it. But should moms carry Narcan? It’s a life-saving tool that some have equated to knowing CPR, but it’s not a cure-all to the fentanyl crisis, experts say, and while it’s good to have on hand, it shouldn’t take the place of education or conversations with your kids about fentanyl and other substances. Here’s what else to know. 

Fentanyl exposure is especially dangerous for small children

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved for treating severe pain, and is typically used to treat advanced cancer pain. “It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is prescribed in the form of transdermal patches or lozenges and can be diverted for misuse and abuse in the US,” Dr. Nosal says. Fentanyl, whether in prescription form or laced in illicit drugs, can pose a severe threat to children of all ages who may unknowingly come across it. 

“It is critical for parents, caregivers and anyone who is around young children and uses fentanyl patches or other opioid medications to make sure they properly store and dispose of them,” Dr. Nosal states. “It’s also important for anyone who uses fentanyl patches or opioids, or has family members who do, to carry naloxone in case a child is accidentally exposed.” That’s because even a small amount of fentanyl in both new or used patches can be deadly for a small child. 

The FDA warns that infants and toddlers are especially at risk of accidental exposure to fentanyl, as when children are held by or are sleeping with adults wearing a patch, it is possible that the medicine from a partially detached patch could be transferred from adult to child.

Fentanyl can cause a child’s breathing and heart rate to slow to a dangerous level that may be fatal, Dr. Nosal says. 

Used fentanyl patches should always be properly disposed of by first folding them in half with the sticky sides together, and then flushing them down a toilet, the FDA states. Patches should not be placed in the household trash, where children or pets can find them.

How does Narcan work to reverse opioid overdose?

Narcan, or naloxone, is a medicine that blocks the effects of opioids. Naloxone works by binding to the same receptors in the brain that opioids bind to, quickly reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. 

Naloxone is safe for people of all ages, says Dr. Nosal, from infants to seniors. And if someone is having a medical emergency other than an overdose and naloxone is used, it won’t harm them. But in the case of opioid overdose, naloxone is a short-term solution. “It’s important to note that naloxone is only a temporary treatment, and it is crucial that a person calls 911 or seeks emergency medical help immediately if they suspect an overdose, even if the naloxone revives the child,” states Dr. Nosal. 

Where can you find Narcan?

Narcan has been made more easily available recently and is now sold over the counter in most pharmacies. Many organizations are also distributing Narcan for free in their communities, so, it is actually quite easy to access, says Laura Didier, an Outreach Coordinator for Song For Charlie, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about “fentapills,” or fake pills made of fentanyl. 

In nasal spray form, naloxone is relatively easy to use and safe to administer. Your doctor or a family physician can demonstrate how to use naloxone and provide education about the signs and symptoms of an opioid overdose, Dr. Nosal shares. 

As a parent, should you carry Narcan? 

It’s a good idea, both experts say. 

“In our family, kids to cousins range from 1 year old to 30, and I encourage all parents, like I do, to carry a naloxone kit in their purse or backpack as well as keeping one in their home. Make sure your family knows where it is and how to use it,” says Dr. Nosal.

Didier agrees, and notes that educating older children about the dangers of fentanyl is still important. “While I believe that it is a good idea for parents to have Narcan, that should not be our sole focus,” Didier shares. “Rather, I believe in making sure that our children are properly educated on the real risks of fentanyl so that they understand that we no longer live in a world where drug experimentation is nonlethal.”

Didier’s son Zach tragically passed away at 17 after taking a counterfeit pill laced with fentanyl in December 2020. 

“I firmly believe that if Zach had been aware of fentanyl and other fake pills, he would have made a different choice,” she says. “Tragically many young kids are dying during their first time experimenting or self-medicating with drugs. They are not frequent drug users nor are they dealing with substance use disorder.”

As parents, we like to think that our children will never want to experiment with drugs, but that’s not the reality, she explains. “Drug experimentation is something that is normal, but unfortunately, with the rise of fentanyl, there is no way of 100% knowing what is laced with fentanyl and what is not.” 

The common red flags of possible drug use in kids: their grades are dropping, their disposition and friends are changing, “that’s old thinking about drug behavior,” Didier says. “This can happen so quickly without your ability to predict. I just don’t want families to be complacent and think, ‘it can’t happen to us.’”

Narcan is an incredibly useful tool, and Didier applauds the fact that it is now more widely accessible. But, she notes, “education, and making sure that parents and children understand this current more deadly drug landscape, is the only way through this crisis.”

If you do decide to carry Narcan in your purse, backpack or diaper bag, or keep it in your medicine cabinet at home, there are a few things to know about administering the medication. 

What to know about using Narcan

It’s a short-term solution. Using Narcan can buy you time, but reach out for emergency medical help immediately if you suspect an overdose. “It’s important to note that naloxone is not a long-lasting solution, and its effects wear off relatively quickly compared to many opioids,” says Didier. 

It’s very safe to use. Even if a person has taken drugs other than opioids, naloxone won’t be harmful. Still, keep the medicine out of reach of any children, as you would with any other medication. 

You may be protected by law. “Many states have laws that protect people from liability if they give naloxone to someone who they suspect is having an overdose. Laws can vary between states and even between communities, so it’s best to check the laws in your area,” Dr. Nosal shares.

Ask a doctor for the correct way to administer it. Your family physician, primary care provider or pediatrician will be able to offer guidance and teach you how to use Narcan.

Featured experts

Laura Didier, Outreach Coordinator for Song For Charlie

Sarah C. Nosal, MD, FAAFP, family physician and board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians