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Fentanyl is an extremely strong synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain in cancer patients. Because it can cause a “high” similar to heroin, it has also become a dangerous street drug. Dealers have long cut the less-expensive fentanyl into heroin to make it even more potent. Now, producers have begun creating fentanyl illicitly. Although fentanyl is safe to use in a highly monitored medical environment, the drug can cause devastating effects for recreational users. 

How dangerous is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is one of the most dangerous drugs in the United States. It is responsible for almost half of all opioid deaths. However, it is also the most widely utilized opioid in a medical setting, used in conjunction with anesthesia. Illicitly produced fentanyl is extremely common. Most overdose deaths associated with fentanyl are from illegally manufactured versions of the drug. It is often mixed with heroin or cocaine and sold on the street.

As with all opioids, the likelihood of abuse, misuse, or addiction is high. The drug’s potent but short-acting effect means users might oversaturate their system with the drug over the course of a day. Dealers who don’t know or more insidiously do know how strong the drug is might cut their supply with fentanyl for a particularly strong effect. This perceived potency of they desired drug (cut with fentanyl) appears to be a pure product and so the user this keeps coming back for more.

What are side effects of taking fentanyl? 

Effects usually last less than two hours. This can make it easy to become addicted and abuse the drug. Medically, fentanyl can be injected, used as an adhesive, taken as a nasal spray, or received orally. Side effects include slowed breathing, anxiety, hyperventilation, muscle weakness, lowered blood pressure, vomiting, constipation, sedation, hallucinations, confusion, and poor coordination. Long-term, the drug can cause weight loss. More serious side effects include respiratory depression, high body temperature, agitation, increased reflexes, tremors, sweating, diarrhea, addiction, and death.

Can you overdose on fentanyl? 

Fentanyl’s strength, potency, and fast-acting effects create a perilous combination for an overdose. The risks associated with even legitimate prescriptions can be fetal. It is suggested that individuals who are prescribed fentanyl have naloxone available at all times. Indications that an individual may be overdosing include trouble breathing or becoming unconscious. Often fentanyl overdoses are mistaken for heroin overdoses so true numbers on the amount of overdose deaths are skewed.

Why is fentanyl easier to produce than heroin?

Heroin is difficult to produce because it requires growing a plant, extracting the chemical, and refining it. Fentanyl on the other hand is made easily in a lab. Public health departments, medical examiners, and law enforcement all play an important role in identifying when a fentanyl tainted supply of heroin or cocaine enters an area. Helping identify who is distributing tainted drugs can greatly reduce overdose deaths in concentrated areas. Improving prescribing guidelines can also help reduce the amount of overdose deaths from fentanyl. Heroin addiction decreases when the prescription of opioid drugs is limited to patients in dire need.

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What are the risks of using fentanyl?

Risk factors for fentanyl abuse are similar to those for other opioid. A family history of drug or alcohol abuse and mental health disorders are important factors to acknowledge before the prescription of any opioid. Being prescribed opioids legitimately is always a risk factor for developing an addiction. Economic and social conditions are also a risk factor. Towns with depressed economies have seen an uptick in opioid related deaths. As have many functioning middle class towns though. The drug is being marketed by street dealers to kids who might otherwise have simply smoked pot or gotten drunk off a couple beers.

Limited access to education and treatment programs for opioid addiction also increases risks of abuse. It is also unfortunately true that people on Medicaid are regularly over-prescribed opioid medications to treat chronic or acute pain. The amount of Medicaid patients prescribed opioids is ten times higher than those prescribed opioids by private insurance companies. People with chronic pain are more likely to become addicted because they take opioids long term and become dependent on their pain relief properties. Even prescription after a routine surgery can become misuse easily. The pain may subside but the client finds the emotional relief tempting as wells the associated euphoria.

What can be done to prevent fentanyl abuse?

Education is a powerful tool against the rise of opioid addictions. Knowing what effects certain medications have on an individual’s system can help them identify when a problem may be developing. It can also help people identify accidental overdoses. Being aware of how and why opioids are so addictive can help individuals identify when loved ones have developed an abuse problem. Asking doctors for other options when they suggest an opioid can also keep unnecessary  prescriptions out of circulation.

There are many holistic and healthier ways to manage pain. Many effective treatments were pushed out of common use by the aggressive marketing of opioids. Reintroducing former treatments for acute and chronic pain can help reduce the amount of opioids created and used. With less people on pills, less people get addicted, and less overdose deaths occur. 

Written By: Sprout Editorial Team

The Sprout Health Group editorial team is passionate about addiction treatment, recovery and mental health issues. Every article is expert-reviewed.