Fentanyl: Everything You Need to Know

February 27, 2023

5 mins

Never Alone Recovery


There are constant news reports lamenting the effects of fentanyl, but do you actually know what it is? Here's everything you need to know about fentanyl.

If you don’t have firsthand experience with it, you’ve at least heard of a drug called fentanyl. Fentanyl is most commonly prescribed for extreme physical pain, but in a post-OxyContin society, fentanyl is relevant outside of its intended purposes.

With more and more deaths attributed to this deadly drug, having some basis of knowledge about fentanyl is increasingly necessary. Here’s what you need to know about fentanyl.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a mostly Schedule I drug, meaning that it is considered to have no medical purpose and a high possibility for abuse. A small amount of fentanyl products are considered Schedule II drugs, meaning that they are considered to have a few medical uses but that same strong potential for abuse. 

Schedule II drugs can only be acquired through a non-refillable prescription, which puts the physician in a position to better oversee the patient’s use of the drug. In terms of its approval status, fentanyl was approved once for treating only the most severe pain, but based on recent healthcare data, we’ve seen that fentanyl has been prescribed far more than it should have been. To make matters worse, fentanyl comes in a number of forms that could be more convenient for misuse, such as transdermal patches and lozenges. 

Fentanyl is entirely synthetic and works extremely quickly. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and heroin, which are among the most potent opiates. Binding to pain and emotion receptors in the brain, fentanyl alleviates pain while also inducing feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Over time, the brain adapts to the frequent presence of fentanyl, resulting in physical dependence and addiction.

Because of its strength, fentanyl is so extremely dangerous that inhaling just two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal. But beyond fatality, other potential side effects include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Constricted pupils
  • Unconsciousness
  • Slowed respirations
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Flushing
  • Stiff or rigid muscles
  • Tight feeling in the throat
  • Difficulty concentrating

Among those, slowed breathing and heart rate are probably the most concerning. During an overdose, a person’s breathing can slow to the point of stopping altogether, which can result in the individual effectively suffocating. Known as hypoxia, this can also lead to a coma and permanent brain damage.

While recourse is limited in the event of a fentanyl overdose, a drug called naloxone can, in fact, treat a fentanyl overdose if you’re able to administer the naloxone immediately. Due to the strength of fentanyl, individuals often require multiple doses of naloxone to mitigate the overdose.

So what happens when someone becomes addicted to fentanyl? In short, it takes more than just naloxone to deal with. 

Because of how fentanyl affects the brain, it’s easy to become addicted. And once the individual is addicted, the symptoms of withdrawal that would already be unpleasant and compounded due to the fentanyl. Fentanyl withdrawal symptoms include muscle and bone pain, sleep problems, diarrhea and vomiting, cold flashes, and uncontrollable leg movements (i.e. restless leg syndrome). 

However, fentanyl addiction doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There are olenty of behavioral therapies that, when used in conjunction with medications meant to ease the symptoms of withdrawal, help patients to overcome addiction.

Fentanyl was created to treat pain, but there’s no denying that it’s caused a lot of harm. But how did fentanyl get to be so prolific?

Fentanyl: A Comprehensive History

First synthesized in the 1960s by Dr. Paul Janssen and the Janssen Company of Beerse, Belgium, fentanyl quickly became popular. Previous attempts at synthesizing opioids resulted in effective yet weaker medications, so fentanyl was developed as Dr. Janssen sought pain medications that work better and faster than morphine.

Fentanyl was initially approved to treat the severe pain of advanced-stage cancer patients in the 1990s, often to restore some quality of life for patients who were terminal or receiving post-surgical care. It would also be used alongside other drugs such as anesthesia, and was eventually developed into dermal patches and lollipop-like lozenges

Despite overdoses being alarmingly prevalent even in its early days, fentanyl was being prescribed for a growing number of patients. Inevitably, some of this was diverted and resold on the street. But if it was so dangerous, how did it get so popular?

The proliferation of fentanyl is partially due to poorly-conducted studies in the 1980s. At the time, addiction science was still very poorly understood. Whether it was poor research or due to incentives provided by pharmaceutical companies, opioids like fentanyl were promoted as safe with little risk of addiction.

Today, fentanyl is seen as an illicit drug that’s responsible for an alarming surge in opioid deaths in recent years.

One of the biggest issues regarding the proliferation of fentanyl is figuring out how to curb the fentanyl diversion, which refers to when prescribed substances are resold on the street. Currently, a lot of fentanyl is imported illegally from China. 

Because of overprescription and illegal import, the effects of fentanyl have been profound. 

Fentanyl, Death Rates, and Addressing Them

Fentanyl’s death rates are on the rise. Fatal overdoses have been occurring due to misuse by patients and inappropriate prescriptions by clinicians. Unfortunately, despite attempts to mitigate harm, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Drug overdose deaths from prescription opioids rose to over 17,000 in 2017. Although we then saw a slightly decrease from 2017 to 2019, we have since seen deaths from fentanyl resume an upward trajectory. If we consider non-prescription opioids and heroin as well, that number actually exceeds 80,000. 

There’s no denying that fentanyl is a major driver of overdose deaths, attributing significantly to the 7.5-fold increase in deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) from 2015 to 2021. 

Moreover, there has recently been a rise in senior overdose deaths with fentanyl believed to have had a lot to do with that. From 2019 to 2020, there was a 53-percent increase in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids among people aged 65 and older.

In 2016, nearly half of opioid-related overdose deaths involved fentanyl.

In 2016, nearly half of opioid-related overdose deaths involved fentanyl. But according to researchers, increasing awareness about the drug’s potency can help. 

By educating the public, clinicians, and first responders about fentanyl equipping them with multiple doses of naloxone to reverse overdose; and expanding access to medication-assisted opioid addiction treatments, we can loosen the chokehold that fentanyl has on millions of people globally.

Take Care of Yourself with Never Alone Recovery

Fentanyl is a dangerous drug, one that can become addictive extremely quickly. Its prolific nature, combined with an overreliance on it as a medication, have made it exceptionally easy to get ahold of. If this has happened to you or a loved one, we encourage you to seek help and support as soon as possible.

At Never Alone Recovery, we partner with many state-of-the-art medical detox programs that can help you. Whether you’re struggling with addiction to opioids or something else, we can find the support you need. 

Wondering how to find the right drug rehab, and what treatments are right for you? Follow us on social media today to learn more about the options that we offer.

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