What You Need to Know about the Deadly Drug Fentanyl

Fentanyl has been named a major contributor to the nation’s opioid crisis. The synthetic narcotic is responsible for the overdose deaths of celebrities such as Mac Miller, Prince, and Lil Peep. In a May 2018 study, Linda Richter, PhD, director of policy research and analysis for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse stated, “The findings …. confirm what front-line health care and law enforcement professionals in towns and cities across the country know from firsthand experience: deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the main drivers of drug overdose deaths in the United States.”

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever that is similar to morphine, but approximately 80-100 times more powerful. It was developed in the 1960s and later introduced as an anesthetic. As a synthetic opioid, it can be created easily and inexpensively in a laboratory. When prescribed, it is used to treat patients with severe pain associated with cancer or post-surgery. It can also be used to treat individuals with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids.

When prescribed by a physician, fentanyl is administrated via injection, transdermal patch, or in lozenges. However, the recent rise of fentanyl overdoses is often associated with illicit forms of the drug. Non-pharmaceutical versions are sold on the street as a powder, spiked on blotter paper, tablets, or mixed in with or substituted for heroin. People can swallow, snort, inject, or absorb it through the mucous membrane by placing the blotter paper in their mouths.

Why is Fentanyl so Deadly?

Similar to morphine, heroin, and other opioids, fentanyl works by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are located in the areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When the drug binds to these receptors, it causes an increase in dopamine levels in the brain’s reward center. The effects of fentanyl resemble those of heroin, including euphoria, relaxation, drowsiness, and later more dangerous effects like unconsciousness and coma. Because of its chemical structure, fentanyl has rapid and potent effects on the brain and body.

Fentanyl is so deadly because opioid receptors are also found in the area of the brain that controls breathing. High doses of potent opioids, like fentanyl, can cause breath rate to slow or stop completely, which can result in death. Fentanyl is highly addictive, and the potency greatly increases the risk of overdose, even in small amounts. Because it is often sold on the streets mixed with other drugs such as heroin and cocaine, users may be unaware of the potential potency and dangers.

How is Fentanyl Contributing to the Opioid Crisis and Overdose Deaths?

Although there is a relatively low rate of fentanyl prescriptions, it has quickly become a major component in the opioid epidemic. Illegal classes of the drug were a large part in the tripling of synthetic opioid overdose deaths in just two years– from 3,105 in 2013 to 9,580 in 2015, according to the National Institutes of Health. Individuals who abuse fentanyl can become addicted and then move onto heroin. Fentanyl cut with heroin makes the drug extremely potent and dangerous, which increases the chance of overdose.

When an individual becomes addicted to fentanyl, and then suddenly stops using, they can experience a series of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly painful and unpleasant, with some examples being:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Fever
  • Sweating
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Tremors

What is Treatment For Fentanyl Addiction?

Treatment for fentanyl addiction includes the use of FDA- approved medications prescribed and managed by a medical professional. The initial step in the treatment process is the safe detoxification of harmful substances. The detox stage can be intense for any addiction, but for something as powerful as fentanyl, it can be deadly if done alone. The right treatment program can administrate the medications to safely manage withdrawal symptoms.

Not only that, but a dual diagnoses treatment center should aim to treat the underlying causes of addiction in the first place. This includes mental health care practices like professional therapy, group counseling, and the development of a healthy support network. Recovery from fentanyl addiction is not only about achieving sobriety, but regaining control of your life, gaining purpose, and strengthening relationships with loved ones.

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