What’s Fentanyl?

In February 2019, a routine traffic stop at the U.S.- Mexico border revealed something other than produce – more than 100 packages of fentanyl weighing 254 pounds. 1 This seizure of more than $3.5 million worth of this dangerous opioid intended for illegal distribution represents the largest single seizure of fentanyl – and showed the seriousness of the fentanyl epidemic.

“The amount of fentanyl our CBP officers prevented from entering our country equates to an unmeasurable, dangerous amount of an opioid that could have harmed so many families,” said Michael Humphries, the Port Director at the Nogales port of entry where the seizure was made, to CNN.

Fentanyl is the most-common drug involved in overdoses, with the number of fentanyl-related overdoses increasing by 113 percent annually from 2013 to 2016, according to CNN. 1 Fentanyl is so potent that even accidentally inhaling it can be dangerous. For example, in 2015, a New Jersey police officer performing a routine traffic stop accidentally inhaled the drug and experienced shortness of breath, dizziness, and affected breathing upon inhaling the drug.

This opioid is abused on its own or “cut” into other drugs to increase their potency – and individuals are becoming addicted and dying from it. This article will examine the fentanyl epidemic, how the drug affects the body, and how to recover if addicted to fentanyl.

How is Fentanyl Made?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it was created in a laboratory. Doctors first created it in 1960 in attempts to synthesize stronger opioids from the drug meperidine (Demerol). 2 The drug was introduced for pharmaceutical use and prescription in the late 1960s. It was originally manufactured under the brand name Sublimaze as fentanyl citrate.

Fentanyl is a potent opioid. Doctors originally prescribed it in a patch form that could deliver continuous low-dose amounts over a time period of two to three days. The medication was also prescribed to cancer patients, who traditionally experience higher levels of pain relative to those with other pain-related conditions, such as musculoskeletal problems.

Fentanyl is stronger than Heroin and morphine – much stronger. In fact, it is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to CNN. 1 Using even small amounts can result in deadly respiratory distress that can cut off oxygen to a person’s brain and result in coma and death.

How are people getting Fentanyl?

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), people have been using fentanyl illegally since the 1970s. 3 Some of the ways fentanyl is illegally distributed include:

  • theft from pharmacies, hospitals, and pharmaceutical manufacturers
  • via obtaining fraudulent prescriptions for the drug
  • illicit distribution by pharmacists, doctors, or patients that are prescribed fentanyl

However, the most common source of illegal fentanyl is manufacture by illicit laboratories, such as the one that manufactured the fentanyl attempting to cross into the United States.

Common Misconceptions About Fentanyl

A common misconception about fentanyl is that because it is a legal medication that it cannot be harmful or deadly. This is far from the truth. An estimated 19,413 Americans died in 2016 from fentanyl overdoses. 3 Fentanyl is addictive and it is dangerous, especially when people use it when it isn’t prescribed to them.

Another misconception is that all fentanyl is fentanyl. While this may seem like an unusual statement, sometimes heroin is sold that is cut with fentanyl, thus increasing its potency and therefore overdose potential. Other synthetic opioids also exist that are yet stronger than fentanyl. This includes sufentanil, an opioid that is 5 to 10 times stronger than fentanyl. 5 Drug dealers may use this drug in replacement of fentanyl, which can have deadly consequences.

When a person purchases fentanyl illegally, the pill may look like the real thing, but it’s hard to know what is truly within the substance.

If you or a loved one have any of these symptoms, the pattern of alcohol consumption may be a cause for concern. The more symptoms present, the more urgent it is to change the situation. A healthcare professional can conduct a formal assessment of the symptoms to determine if AUD exists.  

Even if the problem is severe, most people suffering from AUD can improve from treatment and attain successful recovery from AUD. 

What Does Fentanyl Do to the Body?  

Fentanyl is available via patch, pill, intravenous medication, spray under the tongue, and even a lollipop/lozenge form. 3 When the fentanyl enters the body, it acts on mu-opioid receptors in the brain. The chemical makeup of fentanyl means that it crosses quickly past a person’s blood-brain barrier. This can give intended effects such as pain relief and sedation. However, it can also cause other unwanted effects such as:

  • euphoria
  • itching
  • muscle rigidity that may make it hard to breathe
  • nausea
  • respiratory depression
  • vomiting

Signs of Fentanyl Overdose

Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine at the same doses. 3

 If a person has an overdose from fentanyl, they may experience the following symptoms:

  • unresponsiveness or changes in consciousness
  • cold, clammy skin
  • blue tint to the lips and skin
  • slowed breathing
  • pinpoint pupils

If a person suspects a loved one may have had a fentanyl overdose, they should call 911. Time is of the essence to save the person’s life. Paramedics may be able to administer a “save shot” of medication called Narcan that reverses the effects of fentanyl in the body. This is a potentially life-saving medical intervention that many people can keep in their homes if have an opioid prescription or if they or a loved one struggle with fentanyl addiction or addiction to other opioids, such as morphine or heroin.

What Is Fentanyl’s Long-Term Effects on the Body?

Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, which means that it has medical uses but is highly addictive. 3 Using it can cause respiratory depression that not only leads to overdose, but also increases the likelihood of respiratory-related infections, such as pneumonia. Other long-term known effects associated with fentanyl use include:

  • constipation
  • affected libido
  • mood instability
  • menstrual problems

In addition, some people may inject fentanyl along with drugs like heroin. Injecting fentanyl (or any drug) increases the risks of dangerous and potentially deadly infections. These include hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Risks also include severe infections of the heart, known as endocarditis.

What Is Fentanyl Detox?

When fentanyl is used, it can give a euphoric high that can be addictive. A person may try to increase use to achieve the same high over time. This can lead to losing control over how often and how much is used, resulting in addiction.
Because fentanyl is very short-acting, withdrawal symptoms start in as little as 12 hours after the last dose. 4 The withdrawal symptoms will usually peak somewhere between one to three days after the last fentanyl use.

Examples of fentanyl withdrawal symptoms include:

  • appetite loss
  • chills, alternating with excessive sweating
  • depression
  • irritability
  • nausea
  • pain, particularly bone and muscle pain
  • sneezing
  • strong cravings for the drug
  • trouble sleeping
  • weakness
  • vomiting
  • yawning

Withdrawing from fentanyl is rarely deadly, but it is very, very difficult without medical help. For this reason, many people seek rehabilitation therapy to help them get sober.

What Are the Common Struggles in Getting Sober from Fentanyl?

The symptoms from fentanyl withdrawal usually subside for the most part within seven days after stopping the medication. However, addiction is a powerful condition which can result in strong physical and mental cravings for the drug as a person attempts to get sober.

With any addiction, it’s important to consider how the addiction developed in the first place. For some, fentanyl is a way to escape the pain of disease or depression. These issues don’t go away just because a person wants to get sober. For others, fentanyl is an escape from everyday life and a way to experience a euphoria they haven’t felt before. Therefore, it’s vital to address these issues for a lasting recovery.

Where Can You Get Help for Fentanyl Addiction?

The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved several prescription medications to help in the treatment of addiction to fentanyl. Examples of these include methadone and Suboxone. Both of these medications can block opioid receptors, relieving pain. However, the medications don’t give off the same addictive euphoria using fentanyl does. The approach involves using a controlled medication to reduce dependence on fentanyl and is not intended to be taken long-term. When properly supported by a Doctor, medication-assisted treatment reduces the risk of overdose and increases productivity and quality of life.

In addition to these treatments, rehabilitation facilities can also help with the most immediate effects of withdrawal. From intravenous fluids to anti-nausea medications, there are many ways detox can be eased with professional assistance. Therapists and participation in group counseling can help teach life skills to stop using fentanyl and live a sober lifestyle.

If you, or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to fentanyl, help is available. Talk to a doctor, seek care at an emergency department, or contact Silvermist Recovery to start finding the best place to detox from fentanyl and break free from addiction.