Worried About Fentanyl? You Should Be

Fentanyl is a potent prescription narcotic used for severe pain in some patients. Illicit use of fentanyl has been a major driver of overdose deaths during the ongoing U.S. opioid epidemic. Opioid overdose deaths continue to rise year after year. Fentanyl poses a risk to anyone who uses illicit drugs. It can be found in street drugs in dangerous amounts and can quickly cause a fatal overdose.

Why should anyone be worried about fentanyl? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 150 people die every day from an overdose involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Fentanyl has been a significant contributor to the opioid crisis of the last decade and more.

There are millions of annual fentanyl prescriptions, some of which are illegally diverted, but the real issue is illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Fentanyl can help patients with severe pain and terminal illnesses get relief. It can also cause severe addiction, serious side effects, and overdose deaths. Here’s what you need to know about this dangerous drug.

Fentanyl is a prescription opioid and controlled substance. Doctors prescribe fentanyl for severe and breakthrough pain often associated with metastatic and advanced cancer. Breakthrough pain occurs when a patient on a regular schedule of pain medications experiences an episode of more severe pain.

As an opioid, fentanyl works to manage pain by changing how the brain perceives it. It is related to other opioids, like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone and other prescription narcotics. Fentanyl is reserved for special situations because it is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine. This makes it effective for end-stage cancer patients but dangerous and risky for other patients.

What Are the Risks of Using Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an extremely potent narcotic medication and a synthetic opioid. Like other opioids, it is a central nervous system depressant. It slows down the heart rate and breathing. Any opioid can cause a fatal overdose for this reason, but because of its potency, the risk of overdose is more significant with fentanyl.

Another risk of using fentanyl is dependency. Again, like other opioids, it is habit-forming, and due to the potency, it can cause an addiction much sooner. There are also many potential side effects of fentanyl:

  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Weight loss
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Unusual dreams
  • Dry mouth
  • Insomnia
  • Skin flushing
  • Back pain
  • Chest pains
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas

The risks of fentanyl use largely apply to anyone using the medication inappropriately. For certain patients in a lot of pain and with terminal cancer, the benefits are generally considered to outweigh the risks.

Fentanyl Can Be Fatal

The most worrying thing about fentanyl is how quickly it can cause a fatal overdose. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids like fentanyl are the most common drugs to cause fatal overdoses. Too much fentanyl slows or even stops breathing, which can cause brain damage or death.

If you know anyone who uses illicit drugs, you should be aware of the signs of an opioid overdose:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Passing out or falling asleep
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • No breathing
  • Choking, gurgling sounds
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Limpness in the body
  • Bluish lips, nails, or skin

If you suspect someone is overdosing on fentanyl or another opioid, call 911 immediately. If you have naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote, use it. While you wait for help, try to keep the person awake. Lay them on their side to limit the risk of choking.

Fentanyl Deaths Are on the Rise

The opioid crisis has gone through many phases over the last couple of decades. At one time, oxycodone, a prescription, led overdose deaths. Now it’s fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, largely illicitly manufactured pills, causing the most fatalities.

These deaths continue to rise in the U.S. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug overdose deaths are rising, and fentanyl leads the way. NIDA reported 56,516 synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2020 compared to less than 40,000 in 2019. This was a 56% increase. Most states in the U.S. have seen fentanyl overdose deaths increase in recent years.

Between 2013 and 2020, overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased 18-fold. Preliminary information for 2021 shows that these fatalities continue to rise, even through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fentanyl is Fueling a Rise in Teenage Overdose Deaths

Historically, teen drug users have been less likely to experience a fatal overdose as compared to other age groups. Now, those deaths are on the rise. The number of teens dying from an overdose increased in 2020, the first such rise seen in a decade.

Fentanyl is thought to be the driver of this increase. Counterfeit prescriptions, like opioids, have long been popular among teenage drug users.

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You Might Not Know You’re Getting Fentanyl

One of the reasons there are so many fentanyl overdoses is that street drugs can be laced with this potent opioid without the user being aware of it. When people buy drugs on the street—including heroin and opioid pills—they can’t be sure exactly what they’re getting.

If a pill or heroin contains fentanyl and the user doesn’t know it, they might take far too much and overdose. This can happen even to seasoned drug users with high tolerances for other opioids. You can buy test strips to detect the presence of fentanyl, but these aren’t foolproof. They might not detect other drugs similar to fentanyl, like carfentanil, which is even more potent.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), illicitly produced fentanyl pills contain between 0.02 and 5.1 milligrams. More than 42% have at least 2 milligrams of fentanyl, a dose that can be fatal.

It’s not just other opioids that might contain fentanyl. It has also been found in cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances of abuse. The inclusion of fentanyl in so many street drugs has expanded the number of drug users at risk of a fatal overdose.

Not Everyone Has Naloxone

Naloxone, also called Narcan, can successfully reverse an opioid overdose by restarting a person’s breathing. According to studies, 93.5% of people receiving naloxone for an overdose will survive the incident. Naloxone comes in the form of an auto-injector and a nasal spray.

No one expects to overdose on opioids. Loved ones don’t like to think about this risk to the drug users they care about. This means that not everyone who is at risk for an overdose is prepared with the drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

Many people don’t realize how easy it is to get naloxone and to have it on hand. One study found that more than one-third of people believe it is hard to get. Access laws mean that, in all states, you can purchase naloxone at a pharmacy without a prescription. The products are dosed, easy to use, and small enough to carry conveniently.

Fentanyl Can Cause Addiction

Studies that indicate the effectiveness of naloxone in saving lives also note that many people who survive an overdose are not alive a year later. This is mostly because of addiction. All opioids can cause dependence, but the potency of fentanyl makes it among the most addictive.

The potency of fentanyl means that it causes more extreme withdrawal symptoms. Someone who has become dependent on it might experience severe pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and intense cravings when they stop using. This makes stopping extremely challenging, even compared to other addictive substances.

There are many reasons to be concerned about fentanyl, but most important is the fact that it kills thousands of people every year. If you use illicit drugs, or a loved one does, be aware of the risks and dangers of fentanyl. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional about getting naloxone and getting treatment for fentanyl addiction.