What is Fentanyl?
Table of Contents
- What is Fentanyl?
- What are Opioid Analgesics?
- How is Fentanyl Used?
- What Makes Fentanyl Addictive?
- The Risks of Using Synthetic Opioids
- The Rise of Fentanyl Abuse in the United States
- Fentanyl Addiction Compared to Other Opioid Addictions
- Who is at Risk of Developing a Fentanyl Addiction?
- Recognizing the Signs of Fentanyl Addiction
- Side Effects of Fentanyl Abuse
- Is it Possible to Overdose on Fentanyl?
- Fentanyl Addiction Treatment Methods
- The Importance of Medical Detox in Treating Fentanyl Addiction
- Help for Fentanyl Addiction
- Medically Reviewed By
Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that can be used to treat severe pain, usually for individuals who have become tolerant to other opioid drugs or non-opioid medicine. In particular, it is rapidly becoming a breakthrough cancer pain alleviant.
While most prescription opioids come in slow-release forms, Fentanyl in its prescription form is designed to be more fast-acting. Supposedly 100 times stronger than the opioid drug morphine, this makes it an extremely effective way to treat patients struggling with chronic pain.
Currently, Fentanyl is considered to be a Schedule II controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This means that, like most other prescription opioids, while this substance has an accepted medical use, its high risk for abuse restricts this usage.
What are Opioid Analgesics?
The term opioid analgesics is used to refer to a wide class of drugs including alkaloids derived from the opium poppy plant (morphine) and their semisynthetic variants (oxycodone), as well as synthetic phenylpiperidines (fentanyl) and synthetic pseudopiperidines (methadone).
These substances work by acting on the body’s opioid receptors, producing pain-relieving and euphoric effects. This is what makes them so effective in their ability to control pain; however, it is also what makes them so addictive.
How is Fentanyl Used?
There are several ways that Fentanyl can be used, the most common of which are through transdermal Fentanyl application directly to the skin, or getting an injection of this drug.
For those who abuse Fentanyl through using it in patch form, this typically involves removing the gel and ingesting an entire three-day supply all at once. They may also use multiple doses at once, or ingest the gel in other ways in order to produce a more intense high.
Individuals may also choose to use a Fentanyl buccal soluble film or tablet, which can be orally dissolved. This method of administration can produce effects almost immediately, making it a particularly popular option for those using this drug to treat severe pain.
Fentanyl may also be taken orally as tablets, which can additionally be crushed and smoked or snorted. This method of ingestion may produce particularly rapid effects; however, it can also increase a user’s risk of overdose.
What Makes Fentanyl Addictive?
Fentanyl works by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as other selected opioid drugs. In particular, it affects what is known as an opioid mu receptor, which controls an individual’s emotional and physical states, giving Fentanyl the ability to treat chronic pain.
However, when using this drug in large amounts and/or over long periods of time, Fentanyl eventually blocks opioid receptors in the brain, resulting in an inability to independently produce norepinephrine – the chemical responsible for pain management.
This signifies the individual’s development of a physical dependence on this drug in order to feel pleasure, or function normally. Because of how strong this drug is, many people will end up developing a addiction of Fentanyl even after just a few times of using it.
The Risks of Using Synthetic Opioids
Many people will choose to acquire cheaper Fentanyl from a non-professional source. However, because of how powerful this drug can be, purchasing it from a non-professional source can have several harmful consequences.
This is because, in many cases, drug dealers mix fentanyl with other drugs as a cheap but dangerous additive, ultimately increasing their profits; usually, unfortunately, at the expense of their unknowing customer’s safety.
Common drugs involved in this process include other opioids such as heroin and methamphetamine, as well as cocaine and MDMA; each of which can produce a number of dangerous side effects on their own.
Furthermore, mixing Fentanyl and other opioids can significantly increase a person’s risk of overdose, as well as developing a Fentanyl addiction.
The Rise of Fentanyl Abuse in the United States
Fentanyl abuse is quickly becoming the new face of drug overdose deaths in the U.S., with the addiction rate to this drug having skyrocketed in recent years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were nearly 69,000 opioid related deaths that occurred within the year of 2020, with over 82% of these cases having involved a synthetic opioid overdose.
Of the Fentanyl deaths that have occurred over the last three years, a majority of these did not involve the prescription drug. Rather, they occurred after using illicitly-made fentanyl that had been sold disguised as or mixed in with other drugs, usually without the user’s knowledge.
Fentanyl Addiction Compared to Other Opioid Addictions
When it comes to any form of drug abuse, this behavior is always problematic. However, because of how Fentanyl works within the body, someone with this particular substance use disorder may face more serious adverse effects compared to other types of addiction.
There is also the fact that Fentanyl can be acquired and administered in far more ways than other forms of substance abuse, making this a particularly cheap and easy addiction to develop.
Finally, there is the extreme risk of overdose that comes with almost any case of abusing Fentanyl, particularly illicitly-produced forms of this drug. Because Fentanyl overdose occurs so quickly, and often without the user’s awareness, addictions to this drug all too often end fatally.
Because of its severe nature, individuals who are struggling with this form of substance abuse are strongly encouraged to seek out professional Fentanyl addiction treatment options as soon as possible, before their condition has time to get any worse.
Who is at Risk of Developing a Fentanyl Addiction?
While anyone is capable of developing an addiction to Fentanyl, there are certain individuals who may be more at risk of developing this particular substance use disorder.
This includes those who have a personal or family history of substance abuse, or who regularly inhabit stressful environments, such as through home, work, or school. Being socially involved with people who frequently abuse Fentanyl may also increase this risk.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), it is also quite common for individuals with mental disorders to attempt to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This solution, however, is rarely effective, and may cause further issues over time.
Furthermore, a person taking prescription Fentanyl to treat pain may also have a higher likelihood of becoming dependent on this drug, due to its extreme potency. This is why most doctors will only prescribe Fentanyl in low doses, and for short periods of time.
Recognizing the Signs of Fentanyl Addiction
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are several signs that can be used to determine if someone may be struggling with an opioid use disorder. These include:
- Taking an opioid in larger amounts or over longer periods of time than originally intended.
- Consistently being unsuccessful with efforts to cut down or control opioid use.
- Spending large amounts of time obtaining and using the opioid or recovering from its effects, or experiencing compulsive drug-seeking behaviors.
- Experiencing intense drug cravings.
- Recurring inability to fulfill major roles and responsibilities at work, school or home.
- Continuing to use the opioid despite this causing persistent social or interpersonal problems.
- Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities to continue opioid use.
- Using the opioid in situations in which this may be physically hazardous (i.e. driving).
- Continuing to use the opioid despite this causing or worsening physical or psychological problems.
- Developing a tolerance to the opioid, and needing to use larger doses in order to achieve desired effects.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the opioid, or needing to continue using in order to avoid these symptoms.
Side Effects of Fentanyl Abuse
There are several side effects that may occur as a result of misusing Fentanyl. These may result both from short-term use of this drug, as well as from abusing it over longer periods of time.
In both cases, these can produce symptoms that can be particularly dangerous, and even life-threatening if not properly addressed.
When misusing Fentanyl over shorter periods of time, this behavior can produce a number of unpleasant side effects. These may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urinary retention
- Pupillary constriction
- Respiratory depression
Some of these symptoms may produce additional side effects if not properly managed, including urinary tract infections (UTIs) due to urinary retention. Furthermore, respiratory depression can lead to brain hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in the brain, which can be fatal.
With several of Fentanyl’s short-term side effects already presenting potentially dangerous ramifications, the consequences of its long-term use can be even more severe. Individuals who abuse Fentanyl over long periods of time may experience side effects such as:
- Higher likelihood of bone fractures in elderly users.
- Chronic and severe constipation, which can cause serious problems, such as a bowel obstruction.
- Sleep apnea or other respiratory issues.
- Heart attack and heart failure.
- Weakened immune system.
- Hormonal and reproductive issues.
- Anxiety, depression, and/or other mood disorders.
Because this drug produces such intense side effects, overcoming a Fentanyl addiction will require extensive and highly-structured treatment in order to ensure an individual’s safety and successful recovery.
Is it Possible to Overdose on Fentanyl?
Because Fentanyl is such a potent drug, even taking a little bit more than what it is generally recommended can lead to overdose. This is particularly true when using Fentanyl that has been illegally manufactured, as this process is rarely properly regulated, if controlled at all.
This makes it extremely easy for a person to accidentally take too much of this drug, or consume unmeasured amounts of other substances; usually, unfortunately, unknowingly. Thus, knowing how to recognize the signs of a Fentanyl overdose can be life-saving.
These may include:
- Weak muscles
- Extreme fatigue/sleepiness
- Concerningly low heart rate
- Very low blood pressure
- Blue-tinted lips and nails
If left untreated, fentanyl overdose can have damaging and lasting effects on the body. This may include irreversible brain damage due to hypoxia, as well as possible coma or even death.
If you believe that you or a loved one may be suffering from a Fentanyl overdose, it is crucial that you immediately call for emergency medical assistance. Once medical personnel arrive, they will likely administer naloxone, an overdose reversal medication, to the affected individual.
Fentanyl Addiction Treatment Methods
When treating a Fentanyl addiction, this process will typically combine several different substance abuse treatment methods. These will likely include medical detox programs, as well as inpatient or outpatient treatment options.
Fentanyl addiction recovery may also include mental health treatment options, in order to help an individual to identify and properly address the potential underlying causes of their substance abuse habits.
The Importance of Medical Detox in Treating Fentanyl Addiction
When someone suddenly stops using Fentanyl, they may experience severe withdrawal symptoms, as they are removing a substance from their system that their body has become dependent upon.
These symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable, and even life-threatening if not properly addressed, as well as increase the individual’s risk of relapse. This is why medically supervised detox programs are crucial to a person’s successful recovery from Fentanyl addiction.
This level of care allows individuals to be gradually weaned off of an abused substance under constant clinical supervision and care. This can help reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms, as well as even prevent them from occurring entirely.
Furthermore, Fentanyl addiction treated through medical detox provides individuals with their best chance of avoiding relapse, as well as for successfully achieving and maintaining their sobriety.
Fentanyl Withdrawal Symptoms
There are several side effects that may occur during the Fentanyl withdrawal period. These typically peak within the first few days after a person’s last dose, and will usually persist for up to a week following their development.
The most commonly experienced Fentanyl withdrawal symptoms include:
- Excessive sweating or chills
- Restlessness and insomnia
- Backache and stomach cramps
- Joint and muscle pain
- Muscle weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated heart and respiratory rates
- Increased anxiety
Help for Fentanyl Addiction
If you or a loved one is suffering from fentanyl addiction, know that you are not alone and help is available. While the idea of drug rehab can be scary, it is absolutely necessary in order to safely and successfully recover.
At Find Addiction Rehabs, we connect people like you with addiction treatment centers and providers that are dedicated to serving all of your personal care needs.
Make the right choice and call our 24/7 hotline today, so that we can help you take the first step in your recovery journey, where you can start living a happier, healthier, and sober life!
Eric R. hails from Maine and does extensive work in the field of behavioral health as both a professional writer and passionate advocate for those suffering. From his own personal encounters with mental illness, he speaks to those seeking healthy relief from depression and anxiety and embraces wellness both personally and professionally. After losing friends and family to the darkness of suicide, Eric aims to educate and inform about the nature of treatment and render it accessible for all those seeking a way out of darkness and despair.