Fentanyl is one of the most lethal drugs available in the United States. Overdose deaths from recreational drugs such as heroin, benzodiazepines, and psychostimulants such as methamphetamines have fallen or remained stable since the 1990s, but deaths from synthetic opiates such as fentanyl are on the rise. What exactly is fentanyl and why is it so deadly? And is there any way to improve outcomes for people addicted to fentanyl?
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a manufactured pain reliever frequently used for people having surgery, for severe cancer pain, and as a cough suppressant for individuals with pulmonary illness. It is also occasionally given for those who are unable to take other opioids due to tolerance. It’s a powerful pain reliever that’s 50-100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl was licensed for medicinal usage in 1968 after being developed by Belgian scientist Dr. Paul Janssen. Fentanyl was first marketed under the brand name Sublimaze. Since then, fentanyl has been manufactured in a variety of forms and under different brand names, including:
- Lozenge or lollipop (Actiq)
- Oral Tablet (Fentora)
- Oral Spray (Lazanda)
- IV injection (Sublimaze)
- Transdermal patch (Duragesic)
Doctors wrote 6.5 million prescriptions for fentanyl in 2015 alone, making it one of the most common opioid pain treatments, alongside hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, and morphine. Although fentanyl has a valid medical application as a pain medication, it is also unlawfully used for recreational purposes. Fentanyl can be produced in significant quantities at a minimal cost since it is created in a lab. As a result, it is a low-cost choice for people who want to use opioids recreationally.
How is Fentanyl Made?
Fentanyl is manufactured in a laboratory and derived from opium, which comes from the poppy plant. The poppy plant’s seeds are extracted from the plant pods, and the poppy resin is scraped away. Fentanyl is synthesized by isolating the naturally occurring plant alkaloid present in this resin.
Prescribed fentanyl is typically administered through injection, transdermal patch, or lozenge. Fentanyl is illegally manufactured as a tablet, snortable powder, or combined with liquid and injected. According to the DEA, most illicit fentanyl in the United States originates from China, although Mexico and India are also key sources of the drug.
Why Do People Choose to Take Fentanyl Recreationally?
Like other opioids, fentanyl binds to opioid receptors and changes the parts of the brain that affect our emotions. This causes a flood of dopamine that leads the body to enter a state of intense relaxation. As a result, users can experience feelings of pain relief and extreme happiness. Unfortunately, the adverse side effects of using this drug far outweigh the positive. Potential side effects of fentanyl may include:
- Drowsiness or sedation
- Mouth dryness
- Nausea or an upset stomach
- Feeling dizzy, fainting, or losing consciousness
- Issues with the lungs
- Headaches and hazy eyesight
- Itching and skin rash
Is Fentanyl Addictive?
Fentanyl is highly addictive. It’s so addictive, in fact, that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has categorized it as a schedule II prescription drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and is considered dangerous. People who use fentanyl regularly can develop a tolerance, meaning they have to take more of the drug to achieve the same effect.
Opioid-related overdose is an escalating problem in the United States. While some individuals want to use fentanyl, many others do so by mistake since it is frequently combined with heroin or cocaine. The majority of deaths are caused by illegal fentanyl, not prescription fentanyl.
Fentanyl has no taste or odor, making it difficult to detect. The DEA issued a report in 2016 and included fentanyl as part of its Drug Threat Assessment, remarking that fentanyl-related overdose deaths are “rising at an alarming rate.”
In 2017, almost 60% of opioid-related deaths were attributed to fentanyl, a 46% increase from 2010. Families Against Fentanyl, a nonprofit formed to increase awareness of the drug’s dangers, estimated that fatalities from fentanyl surpassed suicide, Covid-19, and automobile accidents among 18-45 year old individuals in 2020. While some states have made progress in reducing fentanyl-related fatalities, others have seen an increase. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a more than 100 percent surge in synthetic opioid overdoses in Alaska, Oregon, and Kansas.
Overdoses can occur with as little as two milligrams of fentanyl. In comparison, it takes roughly 30 milligrams of heroin to produce an overdose. If you suspect that you or a loved one is overdosing, there are certain warning signs to watch for, including:
- A slowed heart rate
- Breathing difficulties and respiratory problems
- Skin that is cold and clammy to the touch
- Vomiting and nausea
- Lips that are blue or purple
If you fear someone is overdosing on fentanyl, contact 911 immediately since this situation may easily become fatal.
How Can We Prevent Fentanyl Overdose Deaths?
While the rising trend of fentanyl deaths is concerning, we can take steps to tackle the opioid crisis. Knowing what you’re taking is one of the best ways to avoid fentanyl overdose. Test strips can identify the presence of fentanyl in products and your system. In fact, test strips can identify the presence of fentanyl in other medications up to 97 percent of the time. Fentanyl strips are offered at drug treatment programs or by public health officials in some states. The use of these testing strips can assist someone who is actively addicted to avoid drugs laced with fentanyl.
If you have a loved one who is addicted to opioids, you should become trained to use and carry naloxone (Narcan). Naloxone is an over-the-counter, FDA-approved therapy for overdose emergencies. This medicine acts as an opioid antagonist, reversing the effects of opioids such as fentanyl. You can use naloxone to briefly resuscitate someone who is showing indications of an overdose.
However, naloxone is not a replacement for medical attention. If you have to use naloxone to help a person in distress, you should immediately call 911 for further treatment, as the effects are temporary.
While fentanyl testing strips and naloxone are helpful, the most effective approach to prevent accidental drug overdoses is to seek expert substance use disorder treatment at a facility like Lake Avenue Recovery. In treatment, you will learn about the nature of drug addiction and how long-term drug use changes your brain. By seeking help from a certified addiction expert or counselor, you will discover that addiction is an illness. When you’re addicted, your brain is reliant on drugs to feel “normal.” To rehabilitate, you must learn to live without drugs in your body, which is very difficult to accomplish without help.
Before you can begin a day treatment, evening treatment, or intensive outpatient program (IOP), you will need to medically withdraw, or “detox,” from fentanyl. At Lake Avenue Recovery, we connect our clients with a professional medical team to ensure their safety and well-being during this process. Withdrawal symptoms can be very painful, making full recovery nearly impossible without professional assistance. Luckily, experts can use Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) to alleviate the discomfort of withdrawal. The length of your detox depends on how much fentanyl you used and how your body reacts.
Treatment programs such as those offered at Lake Avenue Recovery provide a safe haven for people suffering from drug addiction challenges. We understand the difficulties that come with treating fentanyl addiction and can assist you in finding healthy ways to process urges, manage stress, and overcome withdrawal symptoms. You can reclaim your life — and we’re here to assist. The first step is admitting that you have a fentanyl issue. Once you’ve done that, you can begin your journey to recovery.
If you or someone you love is struggling with fentanyl addiction, don’t wait to get help. Call us at (855) 921-5280 today to speak with one of our trained counselors about the next steps.