What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but much more powerful. It was originally developed as a painkiller for people undergoing surgery. It is currently commonly used to treat patients with chronic pain, suffering while recovering from a surgical procedure, or battling a serious and painful illness such as advanced cancer.
Fentanyl is a Schedule II prescription drug, meaning it has a legitimate medical use, but is also recognized as having a high potential for abuse. Fentanyl overdoses are currently on the rise in the US, and it is one of many illicit drugs now in circulation on the streets being manufactured by clandestine laboratories. The National Institute on Drug Abuse warns fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Fentanyl comes in pills, or white powder form sometimes referred to as ‘China Girl’ (slang for fentanyl). Because fentanyl is a powerful drug, it can induce a rapid and intense high, particularly when crushed pills or powder are dissolved in water and injected. For this reason, many people abuse it intentionally. However, many others ingest it unknowingly. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is often added to heroin or other drugs, meaning users are unaware their drug dose contains it. Involuntary use of fentanyl is one of the main causes of a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl also has a number of derivatives, such as ‘China White’, a particularly prized form of the drug due to its extreme potency.
Effects of Fentanyl
Fentanyl works by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors, located in the areas of the brain that govern pain and emotions. The sought-after pleasant effects of fentanyl are mainly a state of extreme happiness, intense relaxation, and rapid pain relief. Even in small doses, there are a host of other effects:
- drowsiness, even sedation
- constricted pupils
- nausea and vomiting
- urinary retention
- respiratory depression.
Tolerance to fentanyl, physical and psychological dependence, and addiction are other common effects of the drug with regular use.
As with other opioid addictions, fentanyl addiction often begins with a drug habit that escalates into drug abuse. When a person’s use becomes habitual, compulsive, and beyond their control, it becomes a substance use disorder. Continued use in spite of highly negative consequences is the hallmark of addiction.
Like other prescription opioids, fentanyl can be abused even in the form it is sold legally. Transdermal fentanyl, in the form of a patch placed on the skin where it is absorbed, can be chewed, swallowed, or sniffed, and pills can be crushed and then snorted, smoked, or dissolved in water and injected. Fentanyl abuse rapidly leads to:
- Tolerance: The user needs ever greater amounts of the drug, more and more frequently, to experience the desired effect.
- Dependence: A person’s body and mind become accustomed to regular and continued use of fentanyl, to the extent they can no longer function without it.
Generally speaking, some form of comprehensive addiction treatment is required for a person to succeed in giving up fentanyl use.
Signs and Symptoms of Fentanyl Addiction
Although not all of the following symptoms will be present in all fentanyl users, nor necessarily simultaneously in one individual, people addicted to fentanyl (or to any other opioid drug), display certain characteristic signs and behaviors:
- The person takes more fentanyl, or for a longer period than they had initially intended (the beginning of the loss of control of their using habits).
- The person has powerful cravings to use the drug and devotes considerable time and energy to obtaining it, using it, and recovering from its effects.
- As a result of their fentanyl abuse, the person fails to uphold important obligations, such as work or family responsibilities.
- The person becomes socially withdrawn and isolates more, in order to spend more time using drugs.
- The person continues to abuse fentanyl, even though it puts them or others in dangerous situations (such as driving when on fentanyl), adversely affects their physical and mental health, causes problems with law enforcement, and so on.
- The person is unable to stop using the drug, in spite of their best efforts and sincere intentions.
- Because of the tolerance they have developed to fentanyl, they suffer withdrawal symptoms when they are without it for too long.
Doctors generally refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, to establish a diagnosis of substance use disorder. Should they believe a person is under the grip of fentanyl use in this way, they will most certainly recommend some form of fentanyl addiction treatment.
Any drug use potentially carries with it the risk of overdose, but opioid overdoses are particularly common due to the popularity of these drugs for illegal, recreational use. It is clear that once the stage of addiction is reached, a person is far more at risk of unintentionally taking more of a drug than their body can process.
Fentanyl overdoses are currently among the most frequent- the drug enforcement administration states that, according to the CDC, over the 12-month span from the end of January 2020 to the end of January 2022, “overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) rose 55.6 percent and appear to be the primary driver of the increase in total drug overdose deaths.”
Let us remember that overdoses don’t normally happen overnight; there is generally a history of drug use, and often mental health issues, that precede them. It goes without saying that addiction or drug abuse put someone at risk every time they use their drug, or drugs, of choice.
Fentanyl and other opioids are so strong (30 to 50 times stronger than heroin in the case of fentanyl), that a person may inadvertently overdose the first time they take them. This is a particular risk with fentanyl because it is common practice for drug dealers to add small amounts of fentanyl to other drugs, like heroin, cocaine, or amphetamine. By substituting a little of these drugs with a small amount of the extremely potent, and cheaper, fentanyl, the user gets the same high, and the dealer makes more money.
Fentanyl Overdose Symptoms
The symptoms of a fentanyl overdose may not be immediately apparent to an onlooker, and some will be felt only by the drug user. The most common and most noticeable, however, are very slow or abnormally shallow breathing. Unusually slow and ineffective breathing, known as respiratory depression, means less oxygen intake to the point where the brain may be starved of oxygen, leading to a state of hypoxia. This can lead to coma, irreversible brain damage, or even death. Therefore, if these abnormal breathing patterns persist, medical attention is advised, particularly if the person complains of other symptoms too.
Treatment for Overdose
The drug naloxone can treat fentanyl overdose. When administered immediately, naloxone can reverse the effects of fentanyl. However, because fentanyl is so strong, several doses of naloxone may be required. If you are concerned that you or someone near you may have taken too much fentanyl, you should call 911 at once. Once medical personnel arrives, they will decide if they are facing a case of opioid overdose, and administer naloxone as required.
Withdrawal Symptoms of Fentanyl
With any opioid overdose, severe withdrawal symptoms invariably follow, while the body struggles to rid itself of the drug. Any person who has developed a high tolerance to addictive drugs like fentanyl will also experience withdrawal symptoms if they go without it for too long. Symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal include:
- pain in muscles and bones
- diarrhea and vomiting
- cold flashes accompanied by goosebumps
- severe cravings
- uncontrollable leg movements
The withdrawal process can be so unpleasant that many people find they are unable to stop taking fentanyl. There are currently medicines being developed to help alleviate this discomfort, but there is as yet no remedy that systematically works as well as naloxone does for overdoses.
Fentanyl Addiction Treatment
Fentanyl is a hugely powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid. In the majority of cases, a comprehensive addiction treatment program that combines various approaches – associating medication with therapy – is usually what it takes to help a person step out of their addiction and onto the road to a solid recovery. The role of medication is to reduce the intensity of the cravings a person may experience and, particularly in the early stages of recovery, the discomfort from withdrawal. Naltrexone is one of these medications, as are methadone and buprenorphine. Counseling and behavioral therapy complement pharmaceutical treatment.
Fentanyl is one of the most powerful prescription opioid analgesics, and in the forms it is sold on the street, it is one of the most dangerous and at times lethal drugs in circulation. If the stage of full-blown addiction is reached, fentanyl can hold people in a vice-like grip from which it is almost impossible to escape unaided.
As a reputable holistic drug treatment center, we at Empowered Recovery know exactly the suffering opioid addiction causes – and we offer a compassionate solution. If you or a loved one are struggling, please reach out and let us help you on the road back to wellness and the fulfilling life you deserve.