Understanding the Dangers of Fentanyl

Drug overdose deaths involving opioids have risen sharply in the U.S. in recent years. Experts put the blame on fentanyl, one of the most potent synthetic opioids that has started turning up in illegal drugs, mostly heroin. With potency between 50 and 100 times more than morphine, the risks of misusing this drug are extremely high. Know the dangers and be aware that any illicit drug could be contaminated with fentanyl.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent prescription opioid, mostly used to manage severe pain in terminal cancer patients. As opioid misuse increased, fentanyl began to show up in heroin and other drugs.

Some drug users do not realize they are getting fentanyl and may take too much, causing an overdose.

The dangers of fentanyl are numerous, but the most urgent and serious risk is death. Depending on the specific analog and concentration, as little as a quarter of a milligram can be fatal.

If you or someone you care about misuses opioids, you need to understand the risks and the possibility of coming across fentanyl.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a prescription opioid approved to treat breakthrough pain in cancer patients. This is pain that occurs despite ongoing pain treatment with another medication. It can also be used as a painkiller in patients with tolerance to other opioids, rendering them ineffective.

Most patients prescribed fentanyl have advanced cancer. They receive the drug as a skin patch or a lozenge, like a lollipop. Illicit fentanyl, mostly manufactured in Mexico, is a white powder. It looks a lot like heroin and is often mixed with heroin or sold as heroin. It causes a similar high to heroin but is more potent and triggers overdoses in smaller amounts.

Fentanyl Is Behind an Increase in Drug Overdose Deaths

The dangers of fentanyl are most clearly illustrated by statistics. Opioid use disorder and overdoses related to opioids rose for many years, but the last several years have seen major jumps. The explanation for this rise is the influx of illegal fentanyl on the black market. These are some of the troubling statistics:

  • Drug overdoses involving any opioid increased from 21,088 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017, an increase attributed largely to fentanyl.
  • From 2012 to 2018, deaths involving a synthetic opioid (mostly fentanyl) increased 12-fold.
  • Drug overdoses from any cause declined from 2017 to 2018, but overdoses with fentanyl increased.
  • Overdose deaths involving heroin and fentanyl have increased every year from 2014 to 2018.
  • Fentanyl overdose rates have increased in almost every demographic and most regions of the U.S.
  • The increase in fentanyl-related deaths is not matched by an increase in fentanyl prescriptions. The trend is attributable to illicit fentanyl.

How Fentanyl Triggers Fatal Overdoses

All opioids are central nervous system depressants. They slow down activity in the brain and decrease heart rate and breathing. An overdose can be fatal because it causes you to stop breathing altogether. The more potent the opioids, the easier it is to trigger a fatal overdose.

This is why fentanyl is so dangerous. As the most potent opioid available, even tiny amounts can trigger an overdose, even in experienced drug users with some tolerance to opioids. Many users who overdose on fentanyl never knew it was in the drugs they bought. Manufacturers and drug dealers mix fentanyl into heroin to provide a more potent high, but it is not possible to know how much there is or its potency.

Opioid overdoses can be reversed with the medication naloxone. Because fentanyl is so potent, it may take several doses of naloxone to save someone’s life. Signs of a fentanyl overdose include:

  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Lowered urge to breathe
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Extreme sleepiness, inability to stay awake
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Confusion

Fentanyl Is Highly Addictive

Another danger of fentanyl use is addiction. All opioids are highly addictive, but the more potent the drug, the bigger the risk. Opioids cause the release of certain chemicals in the brain that produce euphoria.

Users develop a tolerance to opioids and need to take more to get the same high. This can lead to a greater risk of overdose but also addiction. Over time, the brain changes, making stopping use of the drug extremely difficult.

Any type of substance use disorder is dangerous for many reasons: side effects, the risk of overdose, and other complications like economic difficulties and damaged relationships. An addiction is also problematic because it is a lifelong condition that requires ongoing treatment and management.

Opioid use disorder is one of the most difficult addictions to overcome, simply because of how potent these drugs are and how they impact the brain. Becoming addicted to fentanyl means having a chronic condition for life, even though it is treatable.

Harmful Side Effects of Fentanyl

Overdose and addiction are the biggest dangers of fentanyl, but there are less severe risks too. All prescription drugs have the potential to cause side effects. Abusing drugs increases the risk and severity of these.

Side effects of fentanyl include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Digestive problems
  • Weight loss
  • Vision changes
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Unusual thoughts and dreams
  • Insomnia
  • Skin flushing
  • Back pain
  • Chest pains
  • Hives and rashes
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Seizures
  • Changes in heartbeat

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Fentanyl and Mental Health

The effects of fentanyl are physical but also mental. Misuse is associated with a greater incidence of certain mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Fentanyl increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts. It can even cause symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations and extreme agitation and confusion.

Some people turn to illicit drugs to self-medicate the symptoms of mental illness. Use of the drugs, in turn, worsens mental health. It’s an unproductive, even dangerous cycle. Proper management of mental illness can reduce fentanyl use and its many other dangers.

Other Complications of Fentanyl Use

Any kind of drug misuse, and especially in the case of addiction, can cause complications and problems that quickly spiral out of control. For instance, drug addiction costs money, leading to financial problems, even lost jobs or homelessness.

Many relationships suffer and fall apart because of drug misuse. Health problems indirectly caused by fentanyl result from poor self-care. When addicted to drugs, you are not likely to sleep well, eat a healthy diet, or get regular exercise. Other potential and dangerous complications are accidents and injuries, assaults, driving under the influence, mixing substances, and engaging in sex without protection.

Opioid Addiction Treatment Mitigates Risk

If you or someone you know is misusing fentanyl, or any opioid, get professional treatment as soon as possible. Any level of use is problematic and dangerous, so getting help sooner rather than later can be life-saving.

For an addiction as powerful as opioid use disorder, long-term residential treatment is best. It provides the chance to really focus on therapy, find medical care that helps, and learn to live with cravings and to prevent a life-threatening relapse.

Good residential treatment centers offer a safe community of support. Residents work together and independently to create a better lifestyle, one with staying power. Opioid addiction should not be taken lightly and requires thorough, ongoing, and focused treatment.

The stakes are high with fentanyl, which means treatment is more important than ever. Even if you don’t think you have all the requirements for a diagnosis of substance use disorder, reach out for help before it’s too late. You can benefit from treatment for fentanyl abuse, even early on in problematic drug use. Fentanyl is dangerous and could take your life. Take steps now to ensure you do not become another statistic.


Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders.

Contact us today to start the journey toward lasting recovery.