What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is an opioid pain reliever that doctors typically prescribe for severe pain or to treat pain that follows a surgery. Despite being a prescription medication, fentanyl is a dangerous drug, as it is extremely strong. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that it is as much as 100 times stronger than morphine. Furthermore, while fentanyl is available as a prescription drug, some drug dealers produce it illegally, which comes with added dangers. Here, learn all about fentanyl, including its side effects, as well as potential dangers associated with the drug.
How is fentanyl used?
When people use fentanyl as prescribed by a doctor for pain, they make take a shot of the drug, wear a patch of it on their skin, or suck on fentanyl lozenges that are similar to cough drops. On the other hand, some people may use fentanyl illegally, meaning that they are not taking it in prescription form. NIDA has stated that illegal fentanyl is typically created in secret labs and is available in the form of a powder. Some drug makers may create fentanyl nose and eye drops, put the drug on blotter paper, or produce fentanyl pills that look just like other pain medications.
In some cases, drug dealers may mix fentanyl with other drugs since it produces such a strong high. Drugs that are commonly mixed with fentanyl include the following:
Fentanyl Side Effects
Fentanyl is a prescription drug, but that does not mean it is without negative effects. According to NIDA, people who use fentanyl may feel extremely happy, but they can also experience the following unpleasant side effects:
- Breathing Difficulties
- Loss of Consciousness
- Feelings of Sedation
Is fentanyl addictive?
In addition to its side effects, another adverse outcome associated with fentanyl use is addiction. As NIDA has explained, fentanyl is an opioid drug, meaning it acts on areas of the brain associated with pleasure and pain. When people take fentanyl over and over, the brain adapts to the presence of the drug and builds a tolerance, meaning someone has to take larger and larger doses of fentanyl to achieve the same pain-relieving or pleasure-producing effects. It may be easy to become addicted to fentanyl, given the fact that the drug is so strong. Even people who take fentanyl as prescribed by a doctor may become dependent upon the drug, meaning the body is unable to function properly without it.
Signs of Fentanyl Abuse and Addiction
Some people take fentanyl for legitimate medical reasons, such as for chronic pain associated with terminal cancer. On the other hand, some people may abuse fentanyl, whether they receive it from a doctor or buy it illegally from a drug dealer. Some signs that people are abusing fentanyl include stealing a prescription from someone else, taking more fentanyl than prescribed, or going to multiple doctors to try to obtain fentanyl.
When someone develops a fentanyl addiction, it is classified as a substance use disorder. Given fentanyl’s classification as an opioid drug, the specific clinical term for fentanyl addiction is an opioid use disorder. Symptoms of this condition include signs like the following:
- Cravings for fentanyl
- Inability to stop using fentanyl
- Using larger doses of fentanyl than intended
- Having difficulty functioning at work or school because of fentanyl
- Continuing to use fentanyl even when it is dangerous, such as driving while under the influence of the drug
- Using fentanyl despite the drug causing relationship problems
- Giving up job-related or social activities because of fentanyl
- Continuing fentanyl use even when it causes physical or psychological health problems
Another sign of an opioid use disorder is the experience of withdrawal, or unpleasant side effects when a person stops using a drug like fentanyl. Once a person becomes addicted to the drug, withdrawal can make it very difficult to stop using, as the symptoms can be rather severe.
Some common symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal include sleep disturbances, pain in the bones and muscles, strong drug cravings, cold sweats, goose bumps, involuntary leg movements, and gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Unfortunately, these unpleasant symptoms can begin just a few hours after a person takes his or her last dose of fentanyl. This leads to a cycle of people taking fentanyl just to avoid withdrawal, which prolongs the addiction.
The Dangers of Fentanyl Overdose
While addiction is certainly a concern associated with fentanyl, perhaps the most serious of problems linked to this drug is the risk of overdose. As previously noted, fentanyl is a highly powerful opioid drug, meaning it can lead to overdose. According to NIDA, when a person overdoses on fentanyl, breathing slows or even comes to a stop, which restricts the flow of oxygen to the brain. This can cause lasting brain damage, and in some cases, death.
Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that some people may not know that they are consuming fentanyl. People may think they are taking a shot of heroin or a hit of cocaine, when they are actually consuming a mixture containing fentanyl. This can lead to unintentional drug overdoses. In fact, fentanyl overdoses are rather common. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,000 people died from overdosing on opioids like fentanyl in 2018. Furthermore, data shows that many of these deaths are due to illegal fentanyl, meaning that it is not fentanyl prescriptions causing the large number of deaths, but rather fentanyl produced on the black market that is contributing to fatal overdoses.
This is not surprising given the fact that there are various forms of fentanyl available on the black market that differ slightly from prescription-grade versions of the drug. For instance, carfentanil is an analog of fentanyl, meaning it is similar to the original version of the drug, but it is actually 10,000 times more potent than morphine. This means that it is considerably stronger than prescription fentanyl and therefore significantly more dangerous. People who buy fentanyl from street-level drug dealers may be getting a much more potent drug than they realize, which can have devastating consequences.
Unfortunately, many users may be unaware that they are actually getting a dose of fentanyl when they buy heroin. One study in a 2019 edition of the International Journal of Drug Policy found that many opioid users were unaware of fentanyl analogues like carfentanil, and many of them tested positive for fentanyl. They tended to overestimate their use of heroin and to underestimate their use of fentanyl compounds, suggesting that they did not know the heroin they were using was actually fentanyl.
Fentanyl Trends and Statistics
Most of the data surrounding fentanyl use pertains to its association with overdose fatalities. In West Virginia, the trends surrounding fentanyl overdoses are rather alarming. For instance, a 2019 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that between 2005 to 2014 and 2015 to 2017, overdoses on prescription opioids aside from fentanyl decreased by 75 percent, whereas fentanyl deaths increased 122 percent during the same period.
West Virginia is not the only state that has seen a surge in fentanyl deaths in recent years. In Montgomery County, Ohio, the fatal overdose rate increased 377 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to another publication of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. In addition, during this time period, there was a decrease in the proportion of fentanyl cases also involving heroin, but an increase in fentanyl cases also involving methamphetamine. This indicates that it may be common for drug dealers to mix fentanyl with meth. It is also noted that most fentanyl deaths in Montgomery County were from analogs like carfentanil.
While Montgomery County, Ohio, has seen a decrease in the proportion of fentanyl cases involving heroin, this does not mean that heroin users can assume that dealers are no longer mixing fentanyl with heroin. A study that was conducted in Rhode Island and published in 2017 in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that people who used heroin at least once a week were four times as likely to be exposed to fentanyl. This reinforces the fact that heroin users may unintentionally and unknowingly put themselves at risk of fentanyl overdose.
Finally, research shows that fentanyl overdose may be a regional issue. A 2019 study in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that fentanyl overdoses are most common in the Eastern United States. This study also found that fentanyl has been responsible for the majority of the increase in overdose deaths in the country from 2011 to 2017. Multiple studies have confirmed that fentanyl is a deadly drug.
Treating a Fentanyl Overdose
Given the rise in fentanyl overdoses, life-saving treatment is essential. According to NIDA, naloxone is the first line of treatment for an overdose. When someone takes the medication promptly after overdosing on fentanyl, it blocks the effects of the drug, but because fentanyl is so strong, people may need multiple doses of naloxone to reverse the overdose. Prompt medical attention is also necessary after an overdose on fentanyl, and people should remain in an emergency room setting for several hours after taking naloxone so medical staff can monitor symptoms and ensure breathing remains normal.