You’ve probably heard about fentanyl, the pharmaceutical-grade opiate that has caused a spike in overdose deaths recently. The actual numbers should sound alarm bells: OD fatalities that involve fentanyl increased from 14% to 60% between 2010–2017. As long as the powerful synthetic opiate continues to proliferate, those numbers will likely continue to rise. So why is fentanyl causing so many ODs compared to more traditional street opiates like heroin? Find the help you need with opiate addiction treatment
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a powerful man-made opiate similar to morphine; however, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent. This prescription drug can be used legally but is often made illegally and distributed on the street. Fentanyl was intended to be used for patients experiencing extreme pain, particularly after surgery. Some prescriptions are given to chronic pain patients who are physically tolerant to other opioids. However, this practice is becoming less common as laws begin to crack down on doctors who overprescribe opiates.
Fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and other organs in the body. These are often called mu-opioid receptors because they are affected by chemicals released by opium poppies. These receptors are located throughout the body, in the spinal cord, brainstem, gastrointestinal tract, and within the peripheral nervous system. They are also located in tissues associated with pain processing including the periaqueductal grey matter of the midbrain that plays a role in pain modulation. Binding to these receptors activates them which causes an increase in dopamine release. This creates feelings of euphoria and is what leads to dependence on opiate drugs.
Prescription names for fentanyl:
- Actiq ®
- Abstral ®
- Duragesic ®
- Ionsys ®
- Sublimaze ®
- Subsys ®
Why Fentanyl Poses More Risk
Although prescription fentanyl is controlled by FDA regulations, illegal versions of the drug are produced with no controlled oversight over potency or purity. People who buy fentanyl off the street are theoretically getting “more bang for their buck” than opiates like heroin, but that comes at a huge risk. There is no way to gauge tolerance levels when fentanyl comes into the picture because of how much it varies in potency. To top things off, many dealers will lace fentanyl into other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, meth, and MDMA.
Even if users are aware that their drug is laced, they usually don’t know how much fentanyl they are taking. This is because the majority of opioid counterfeit drugs contain fentanyl, which increases both the risk and potency of the drug. It’s estimated that some sort of opioid has been contaminated in about half of all overdose deaths in the US since 2013.
Take a look at the effects (and side effects) of fentanyl to see why fentanyl death is always a possibility:
- Intense, short-term high
- Temporary feelings of euphoria
- Slowed respiration
- Reduced blood pressure
As an opiate, fentanyl carries all the overdose risks that come with drugs like heroin, morphine, oxycodone, and other prescription opiates. These drugs’ effects on the respiratory system is typically what causes them to be fatal when taken in too high of a dose. They slow down breathing functions (leading to a condition called hypoxia), which cuts off oxygen from the brain and can lead to permanent brain damage or death within minutes.
Resources for Loved Ones
Although loved ones cannot force people who abuse drugs to seek treatment, there are options to keep drug users safe from fentanyl overdoses. Naloxone is a medicine that can reverse a fentanyl overdose when given soon enough. This medicine rapidly binds to opioid receptors and stops the effects of all opiates in the system. Loved ones should note that fentanyl is stronger than other opioid drugs, so ODs may multiple doses of naloxone to be effective.
There are two main ways people in the US have access to this life-saving medicine.
Naloxone is available at the pharmacy counter in most CVS and Walgreens stores in the United States. Although not as freely accessible as other OTC medications, it is still possible to have the pharmacist write a prescription for Naloxone on the spot. Other pharmacies may also offer this service on a case-by-case basis. For more information, check out our article on getting naloxone over the counter.
If you suspect someone has overdosed and don’t have naloxone on hand, call 911 immediately. Moments may be the difference between life and death for fentanyl overdoses. Once medical personnel arrive, they will administer naloxone. People who are revived with naloxone should be watched for another two hours to make sure breathing does not slow or stop after the last dose is administered.
Naloxone is available as an injectable (needle) solution, a hand-held auto-injector, and a nasal spray.
Getting Help for Opiate Addiction
Fentanyl is one of the most life-threatening opiates because of its incredible and often unpredictable potency. If you or a loved one is seeking help for an opiate addiction, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363