As an extraordinarily potent opioid, fentanyl can cause a variety of effects.
Short-term effects include pain relief, euphoria, lowered blood pressure, and overdose. Long-term effects include dependence, addiction, and brain changes.
Most people in the United States have at least heard of the opioid crisis. We see news about overdoses, misuse, and fatalities on an almost daily basis. Heroin, prescription painkillers, and other opioids are known for their negative impact on society, and now, fentanyl has become well-known in the public eye.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. Though similar to other painkillers such as morphine, it is at least 50 to 100 times stronger. It can be used for medical reasons and with a prescription, but it has become popular outside of legal use.
Prescription fentanyl brands include Sublimaze, Actiq, and Duragesic. Street names for fentanyl are Dance Fever, Goodfellas, Murder 8, Tango & Cash, and China Girl.
People often run into fentanyl when it is used as an adulterant in other drugs, but they may occasionally seek it out without fully understanding its long-term and short-term effects.
Patients are sometimes given fentanyl as a painkiller via medical supervision if they have a high tolerance for other opioids.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation says it is an effective painkiller because it can bind with opioid receptors in the brain and cause changes in how you react to pain. This could even result in feelings of euphoria and relaxation.
Doctors legally prescribe fentanyl for the following conditions:
Legal forms of fentanyl are sold as a patch, a lozenge, or an injection. Per MedlinePlus, patients who use the fentanyl patch should make sure it is not damaged because it is meant to ensure you receive the dose over three days. If a patch is cut or damaged in any way, you may receive the full dose at once and risk an overdose.
Illicit forms of fentanyl are created in labs, and they can found in various forms. Fentanyl is sometimes made into a nasal spray, sold in an eye dropper, or found on blotter paper.
Diversion of a fentanyl supply: Legal prescriptions of fentanyl can wind up in the wrong hands when:
Illicitly produced fentanyl: This is fentanyl created in a lab that is made to be distributed illegally. It may be:
No amount of illicit fentanyl is safe. It affects people differently depending on various factors, such as height, weight, age, and health history. Other variables in how fentanyl might affect you are:
Fentanyl may result in the following short-term effects:
Overdose is the most serious short-term effect, and incredibly small doses of fentanyl can result in overdose.
When used consistently, fentanyl and other opioids can cause the following long-term effects:
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Per Harvard Medical School, opioids like fentanyl are fatal even at small doses. It is dangerous to take fentanyl even when you seek it out, but many drug overdose deaths from fentanyl occur when someone takes it by accident.
“Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), in 2016, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids passed prescription opioids as the most frequently found drugs in overdose deaths. Fentanyl is often mixed into other drugs. Most people who die by overdose usually test positive for other drugs as a result.”
Substances like cocaine and heroin are now laced with fentanyl because it is a cheap substitute that drug dealers can use to make more profits. People may also end up with fentanyl if they buy prescription pills from drug dealers.
People who ingest fentanyl often believe they are taking something else, such as ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. This makes it hard for doctors to determine the cause of an overdose.
Naloxone can delay or stop an opioid overdose if given to the person in time, per NIDA. Naloxone can help by interacting with opioid receptors in the brain to stop the effects of fentanyl. However, fentanyl is stronger than opioids like heroin, and more than one dose of naloxone may be necessary to reverse its effects.
If you suspect someone is overdosing on fentanyl, call 911.
Once naloxone has been administered, the person should be observed to ensure their breathing does not decrease or stop.
You may be able to keep naloxone around if you know someone is at risk of an opioid or fentanyl overdose.
Some states have enacted laws allowing people to buy it without a prescription.
Training is available for people who want to learn to administer naloxone correctly if there is an emergency.
Treatment is the best path forward for people who misuse opioids like fentanyl. Treatment will likely include medical detox. Since fentanyl is such a strong opioid, it’s likely that medication-assisted treatment, such as the use of buprenorphine or methadone, will be used. This can help to reduce withdrawal symptoms and opioid cravings.
A November 2018 report from The Atlantic states that people are more successful in recovering from opioid misuse if they have access to medication that reduces cravings. Other strategies for treatment include therapy, group meetings, and learning skills needed to stay away from drugs.
Treatment can also include help in the case of relapse. It is normal for people to fall back into use before making a complete recovery. It’s just as imperative to get back on track with treatment to prevent relapsing again.
(February 2019) What is fentanyl? National Institute on Drug Abuse from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
(January 2019) What is fentanyl? Alcohol and Drug Foundation from https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/fentanyl/
(January 2019) Everything you need to know about fentanyl. Medical News Today from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/308156.php
(August 2016) Fentanyl: the dangers of this “man-made” opioid. Harvard Medical School from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fentanyl-dangers-potent-man-made-opioid-2016080510141
(March 2018) Fentanyl Transdermal Patch. MedlinePlus from https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a601202.html
(November 2018) America’s Health-Care System Is Making the Opioid Crisis Worse. The Atlantic from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/11/why-heroin-and-fentanyl-addicts-cant-get-treatment/576118/
(May 2018) Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids Drug Overdose Deaths. National Institute on Drug Abuse from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/fentanyl-other-synthetic-opioids-drug-overdose-deaths
(December 2018) Fentanyl Surpasses Heroin As Drug Most Often Involved In Deadly Overdoses. NPR from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/12/12/676214086/fentanyl-surpasses-heroin-as-drug-most-often-involved-in-deadly-overdoses