What is Harm Reduction?

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What is harm reduction as it relates to opioid use disorder?

According to Shatterproof, harm reduction refers to policies, programs, and interventions that are proven to reduce the harmful effects of drug use and addiction. It is also a way to help individuals link and engage in treatment to reduce, manage, and stop their substance use when appropriate. 

According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Because harm reduction demands that interventions and policies designed to serve drug users reflect specific individual and community needs, there is no universal definition of or formula for implementing harm reduction.

  • Vital in addressing the opioid crisis is preventing overdoses. Naloxone (Narcan, Evzio) is the potentially life-saving medication used to quickly reverse an opioid overdose. It can reverse and block the effects of other opioids and return normal breathing to someone whose breathing has slowed or stopped because of opioid overdose. Naloxone is available as a prefilled auto-injection device, as a nasal spray, and as an injectable.

Read more about preventing overdoses from SAMHSA

Essential and Evidence-based Approaches to Harm Reduction

  • Expand outreach and education programs on harm reduction, including overdose prevention education
  • Provide low-threshold access to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD)
  • Expand access to syringe service programs
  • Expand access to naloxone, especially targeted distribution to high-risk individuals
  • Ensure a safe drug supply through the use of drug checking with fentanyl test strips
  • Implement overdose prevention sites, also known as safe injection facilities, in areas with high rates of drug use (currently not implemented in the United States)
  • Consider supervised consumption of prescription heroin or hydromorphone for individuals that are unsuccessful on MOUD (currently not implemented in the United States)

Additional Information

See the Community Response Checklist for examples of harm reduction programs and services.

See Background Materials on harm reduction.