Fentanyl is a highly potent narcotic medication that belongs to the opioid class of drugs. It is prescribed for the treatment of severe pain following surgery, a major injury, nerve damage, or pain associated with cancer treatment.
The drug works by interfering with opioid receptors that are responsible for sending pain messages throughout the brain and body. By inhibiting these messages from being sent, opioids reduce the amount of pain people experience.
Fentanyl comes in many different forms, including as a transdermal patch, tablet, spray, lozenge, and intravenous injection. The intravenous injection will produce the most immediate pain-relieving effects. Tablets and lozenges, also sometimes given as lollipops, will take slightly longer to take effect. The transdermal patches are designed for extended-release of fentanyl only, which means low doses of fentanyl are released over time to provide a constant level of pain relief.
Fentanyl is one of the strongest opioids available on the market today. As it is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl must be used with extreme caution and only in very specific conditions. Its use is reserved for the treatment of severe pain that has not responded well to other pain medications.
All opioids are addictive, but due to the potency of fentanyl, the risk of misuse and overdose is higher. Like all opioids, tolerance to fentanyl can develop quickly, within just a few days. Dependence is likely to develop with extended use of fentanyl, which can happen within just a few weeks for some people. Fatal overdose, however, can happen with just one unintentionally high dose of fentanyl.
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Fentanyl is abused by people who wish to use it for recreational purposes as well as for medical reasons. Even when used through a doctor’s prescription, people can develop substance use disorders. If you take your fentanyl medication other than how your doctor prescribed it, such as taking it in greater doses or using it more frequently than you were told, you are misusing the prescription.
Fentanyl is also frequently abused recreationally. Some people extract fentanyl from the transdermal patch and then inject it intravenously. This is a particularly risky way to use fentanyl, as exact doses are very hard to determine, and your risk of overdose is high.
People who use fentanyl to get high are also more likely to be using multiple substances at once. They sometimes mix fentanyl with other drugs to increase the potency and experience of euphoric effects. Mixing fentanyl with other drugs is very dangerous, however, as it can cause very adverse side effects, including life-threatening ones.
Mixing fentanyl with alcohol, for example, greatly increases your risk of respiratory depression. Mixing fentanyl with benzodiazepines can increase the sedative effects of benzodiazepines and cause dangerously suppressed breathing. Additionally, mixing fentanyl with MAOI antidepressants causes severe and unpredictable side effects in many people.
Fentanyl is so dangerous because it can lead to addiction in a short time. Just one use of fentanyl puts people at risk of overdose, which is often fatal.
Fentanyl, like all opioids, is habit-forming. Fentanyl may be even more addictive than other forms of opioids because of its high potency.
Fentanyl that is used for recreational reasons is particularly dangerous. The potency and quality of drugs being bought on the street cannot be guaranteed. The National Institute on Drug Abuses (NIDA) warns that fentanyl sold on the street is often laced with other substances, such as heroin or cocaine.
This combination increases the potency as well as the risks associated with fentanyl use significantly. Likewise, many people who buy other drugs experience adverse side effects because the products they purchase are laced with fentanyl, unbeknownst to them.
When fentanyl is combined with other drugs like heroin, the chances of overdose increase. It’s difficult to dose these combinations, and people often take doses that their bodies simply can’t handle. This can quickly lead to significantly suppressed life functions and even death. Medical treatment is needed immediately for the best chances of survival.
There are many different street names for fentanyl, some of which vary depending on which drugs fentanyl has been mixed with, such as heroin. According to NIDA, common street names for fentanyl include:
Because fentanyl is such a potent drug, it is important to be aware of its side effects before you start taking it. Likewise, you should pay attention to how your body responds to fentanyl before performing tasks such as driving or operating heavy machinery.
Specifics can vary from person to person, but common side effects of fentanyl include:
Less common but more severe side effects can be very dangerous. They include:
Common side effects of fentanyl are usually expected to resolve within a few days. Your doctor may recommend at-home remedies that can alleviate some discomfort the side effects cause.
You should not attempt to manage the more severe side effects, however, by yourself. They indicate the need to seek medical attention right away so that they don’t progress to complicated health problems or an accidental overdose.
One of the most serious side effects of taking fentanyl is addiction. Addiction occurs following the extended use of a substance that the brain and body have become dependent on. It is a disease that impacts a person’s brain as well as behavior. People who battle with addiction lose all control over their drug use and can’t stop using, even if they want to.
Drug addiction presents itself differently in every individual, but there are many common signs to look out for. Symptoms of opioid drug addiction include:
In addition to the above symptoms of addiction, people who struggle with a substance use disorder will not seem like themselves. They will be failing to fulfill responsibilities, skipping out on family and social events, be consumed by obtaining the drug, and continue to use it despite suffering adverse consequences.
One of the greatest risks of fentanyl misuse is overdose. The high potency of fentanyl means an overdose is a very real risk. When used under a doctor’s supervision and as directed, the risk of overdose is considered to be relatively low. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, however, that most cases of fentanyl overdose are caused by illegally manufactured and sold fentanyl.
Signs of a fentanyl overdose include:
Although the rates of prescriptions for fentanyl are decreasing, the number of overdoses related to fentanyl use continues to rise. Synthetic opioid-related deaths increased 264 percent from 2012 to 2014.
If you are using synthetic opioids for medical or recreational purposes, stay informed about signs of a potential overdose so that you can get help before it is too late.
If you recognize the signs of an overdose in yourself or someone around you, call for emergency medical attention right away. An overdose leading to severe respiratory depression can be fatal. Emergency medical responders can administer a dose of naloxone, an antidote approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, such as fentanyl.
The CDC encourages expanding the use of naloxone to fight the currently high rate of fatal opioid-related overdoses.
Proper treatment of a fentanyl addiction is likely to include medically assisted detox followed by participation in behavioral therapy. If you enroll in a rounded treatment program, you will benefit from medically assisted detox as well as psychological support to get you through this difficult period.
Medical detox can help to mitigate withdrawal symptoms that are likely to be very unpleasant and prevent many people from getting sober. In the case of a fentanyl addiction, alternative and less addictive opioids, like methadone, may be used as a replacement for fentanyl.
Methadone, for example, produces similar physiological effects on the body as fentanyl does without causing sensations of euphoria and cravings. People are then gradually tapered off methadone as the body adjusts. This gradual taper prevents withdrawal symptoms from being nearly as severe and uncomfortable as those that occur if fentanyl was quit cold turkey.
Detox is only the first stage of addiction treatment, explains NIDA. Detox alone does little to gain an understanding of your patterns of substance abuse and instill lifelong healthy coping skills that will prevent you from returning to drug use once treatment ends. For people who require a longer tapering period, behavioral therapy can begin before all of the methadone is cleared from the system.
If you have decided to quit using fentanyl, but you have already developed a dependence on the drug, you are likely to encounter withdrawal symptoms as it metabolizes out of your system. Common symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal include:
The severity of the above withdrawal symptoms will vary greatly depending on many personal factors. The duration and intensity of your fentanyl use as well as general health condition will impact how easily your body adjusts to fentanyl being removed from it. Fortunately, for people who are faced with severe withdrawal symptoms, there are medical interventions to ease the discomfort and get you on the path to recovery.
It is possible to use fentanyl safely, and it can play a very important role in the medical world. It provides powerful pain relief to people who can’t get it through other medications. Even when used medically, however, the risk for misuse is high because it is such a potent and addictive substance. To reduce your chances of having a negative experience with fentanyl, use it minimally and with extreme caution.
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