Updated on August 11th, 2020
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) have become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S.1 Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 10 times more powerful than heroin and 50 times more powerful than morphine. It is used in medical settings to treat patients with severe pain but in 2012, it emerged on the illicit drug market and has since become very popular with drug users and drug dealers alike.
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Drug overdoses killed 67,367 people in the United States in 2018, an increase of 4.6 percent from 2017. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were involved in two out of three (or 67 percent) overdose deaths.2
Unfortunately, since synthetic opioids like fentanyl are cheap to make and extremely profitable to sell, illicit drug producers and dealers aren’t likely to stop selling them anytime soon.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is an extremely powerful Schedule II synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.3 Fentanyl is usually prescribed by doctors in the form of Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze to help patients cope with chronic pain, manage postoperative pain, or treat patients with severe pain. It may also be used to treat patients who have developed a tolerance for other opioids.
If prescribed by a doctor, patients will typically inject it, wear a patch, or consume a lollipop or lozenge. Some people who become addicted to fentanyl may also purchase this drug through dealers. In this case, it may come in a powder, film, or tablet form and is sometimes mixed with heroin or cocaine.
People typically swallow, snort, or inject the non-pharmaceutical fentanyl, which can be extremely dangerous because the labs that produce it are unmonitored. Therefore, a user never really knows how much of the drug he or she is taking in a single dose.4,5
The effects of fentanyl are produced when the drug binds to the opioid receptors in the brain, affecting emotions, mood, and respiration. As a result, this drug is often abused for the intense high and feelings of euphoria it creates.6 Fentanyl is particularly dangerous when mixed with heroin or cocaine and the risk of overdose is very high.
What Are Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Fentanyl Addiction?
Using fentanyl in ways or dosages other than it was prescribed is the main cause of addiction. This includes taking larger doses than recommended, taking the drug more often than prescribed, or continuing usage long after it is needed.
Individuals who are addicted to fentanyl should not attempt to discontinue use on their own. Medically assisted drug detox is the safest way to stop all fentanyl abuse and complete the withdrawal process.
If you are worried that you or someone you love is addicted to fentanyl, there are several signs and symptoms to look for. Signs of drug abuse and addiction in a loved one may include5:
- Losing interest in activities or hobbies they used to enjoy
- Neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home
- Having consistent financial and relational problems
- Displaying extreme changes in weight and appearance
- Being extremely secretive about their whereabouts or behaviors
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Displaying extreme mood changes and impaired coordination
- Continuing the drug use even though it is harming themselves or others
In some cases, it may be easy to tell when a friend or family member is abusing fentanyl, but in other instances, you may have to look for some specific signs of physical abuse. Although some of these physical symptoms may be a result of proper medical usage, they may also be a sign of drug abuse. These physical effects may include:7
- Weight loss
- Impaired coordination
- Pinpoint pupils
- Difficulty breathing
- Slurred speech
- Slowed heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
Fentanyl abuse and addiction can also have very serious physical and mental effects over time, such as gastrointestinal problems, extreme paranoia, and seizures. When combined with other depressant drugs like heroin, the person abusing the fentanyl is at advanced risk for coma, respiratory depression, or even death.4
What Happens During a Fentanyl Overdose?
When used, fentanyl works by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors. These receptors are responsible for controlling pain and emotions. When this happens, the brain is suddenly flooded with dopamine, creating a state of extreme euphoria and relaxation. Some opioid receptors also control a person’s breathing rate, so if a high dosage of fentanyl is taken, breathing may stop completely and result in immediate death.5
According to Live Science, individuals who have experienced a fentanyl overdose say the effects happen very quickly, typically occurring within seconds to minutes of the drug being taken. Overdoses most often occur when fentanyl is injected rather than snorted, although snorting fentanyl is by no means any safer. Common characteristics of a fentanyl overdose include:
- Bluish lips
- Gurgling sounds
- Foaming at the mouth
- Stiffening of the body
- Complete unresponsiveness
The High Risk of Deadly Drug Cocktails
Deadly drug cocktails such as fentanyl-laced heroin or cocaine are extremely dangerous and further increase the risk of drug overdose deaths in users. In a recent report from USA Today, scientists in Nashville and Knoxville recently detected fentanyl mixed in with three different samples of cocaine.8
This is significant because although fentanyl has commonly been mixed with heroin and other opioids, cocaine is considered a “party drug” which has the potential to claim the lives of many more drug abusers who are just looking for a good time. It only takes one milligram of fentanyl to get someone high, and two to three milligrams to kill them.
Fentanyl can also be absorbed through the skin, so even just touching the substance could cause an overdose. Although not all blends of cocaine and fentanyl are fatal, they are all highly addictive and could lead more individuals down a dangerous path of drug abuse.
Treatment for Fentanyl Abuse
It is completely possible for a person to become addicted to fentanyl simply by using the drug as directed by a doctor. In this case, he or she does not necessarily need to seek out a drug detox and rehab program to treat their addiction, but they should seek assistance from their doctor to address the physical dependence and effectively wean themselves off of the drug.
On the other hand, a person may also abuse this drug strictly to cope with stress, trauma, or other problems. This type of behavior is characteristic of chronic addiction and substance abuse and should be treated with a medically assisted drug detox program and long-term inpatient rehab center.
The first step to treating fentanyl addiction should always be an individualized drug and alcohol detox program. This will address the physical and mental symptoms of the addiction and help manage uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms as the user succeeds from all drug use. During this time, the user will experience the many physical and mental changes the body experiences during withdrawal and gradually adjust to life without fentanyl.
After completing an opiate detox program at a detox center, addiction treatment specialists recommend enrolling in a long-term addiction treatment rehab program. A program that requires a stay of at least 90 days is most likely to provide an adequate amount of time to adjust to the lifestyle change, learn and practice coping skills, and develop a recovery support community.
If you or a loved one is struggling with fentanyl abuse or addiction, you don’t have to settle. There is hope for you to achieve long-term sobriety and it all starts with a phone call. Contact the Briarwood admissions team today to learn more about our medically assisted drug detox program for opioids.