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What is Fentanyl? Facts You Need to Know

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Fentanyl is a synthetic, highly addictive opioid. It is both a legal prescription drug and an illicit drug made in underground labs. Both prescription fentanyl and illicit fentanyl can be sold illegally. Prescription fentanyl is sold under the trade names Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®. Both legal and illicit fentanyl can be misused and lead to addiction. Medically, fentanyl is used to treat severe pain. 

This Schedule II drug is both highly addictive and very potent. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) defines a Schedule II drug as a drug that has a high potential for abuse with use leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. As mentioned, fentanyl is very potent which increases the dangers of overdose to the unknowing user. The DEA reports that one kilogram of fentanyl has the ability to kill 500,000 people. 

Today, most people don’t seek and use fentanyl alone. The most recent practice of drug dealers is to add this deadly and addictive synthetic opioid to other drugs. This practice is very dangerous and is leading to an increase in overdose deaths from numerous other substances. 

Fentanyl is commonly added to heroin, another opioid, which makes it more potent and deadly. However, fentanyl is now being added to other, non-opioid drugs. These can include any drug but most recently fentanyl has been found in the following:

  • Heroin
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamines
  • Marijuana
  • MDMA

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), this dangerous practice is responsible for the upward trend in drug overdose deaths. In fact, in 2017 59% of all drug overdose deaths involved fentanyl. This is up by nearly 45% from 2010 in which 14.3% of all overdose deaths involved fentanyl. 

For many users of non-opioid drugs, they are more at risk than ever. Not only are they unsuspecting of an opioid being in the substance they are consuming, for most of them, they haven’t taken opioids before and they are more susceptible to its effects particularly overdose. It’s imperative that more people are made aware of this new, deadly practice in order to protect themselves and their loved ones. 

In addition, fentanyl being added to other opioids is also deadly. This common practice leads many users to overdose because they are unaware of just how much opioids they are putting into their bodies. Fentanyl is about 50 to 300 times more potent than morphine. Just a little bit can be too much. 

Fentanyl and Overdose Deaths 

Since fentanyl is added to so many drugs, overdose death rates are soaring. For this reason, it’s vital to spread awareness and help those living with opioid addiction to get help. Whether someone is knowingly addicted to an opioid or they are taking it with another drug such as cocaine, the results can be the same. Most every time someone starts using fentanyl (or another opioid) they will become dependent. 

Here are some facts associated with fentanyl, addiction, and overdose deaths according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics

  • There were more than 42,000 overdose deaths involving fentanyl in 2020
  • Overdose rates from fentanyl are increasing 2.5 times faster than overdose rates from heroin
  • Fentanyl overdoses are 550% higher than other prescription opioid overdoses
  • The DEA confiscated 59.75 million lethal doses of fentanyl between 2013 and 2015. 
  • 6.5 million prescriptions for various types of prescription fentanyl were written in 2015

Taking fentanyl—and adding it to other substances— is a deadly practice. Anyone who is using illegal substances may be unknowingly taking fentanyl and become addicted. Since fentanyl is added to other drugs, it can sometimes be hard to detect if it is being used. When the individual taking the drugs is unaware it has been added, they too may be confused by symptoms they are experiencing. 

How Fentanyl Works in the Brain 

Fentanyl impacts the areas of the brain which control emotions and pain. They bind to opioid receptors in these areas changing how these important parts of the brain work. Fentanyl changes how the brain experiences reward, pain, and pleasure. With continued use, these parts of the brain become dependent on the drug to feel any type of pleasure. This results in addiction, leading the person to seek more and more of the drug to feel good. With prolonged use and dependence, the individual may have to use the drug just to feel ‘normal’. 

When a person needs a drug of any kind to feel ‘okay’ addiction has set in and the person will seek to use that drug at all costs. This is where compulsive drug-seeking behaviors are seen. For the person who is not using drugs, the behaviors may seem absurd, however, for that person who has become addicted, they are just trying to survive. Treatment programs that first safely help the individual stop using the drug are imperative. Detoxing from fentanyl and other opioids can be not only difficult but also life-threatening. For these reasons, it’s essential that this be done under medical supervision. 

Signs of Fentanyl Use 

As mentioned, fentanyl impacts the areas of the brain dealing with emotions and pleasure. When an individual uses fentanyl (whether knowingly or not) they experience symptoms much like with other opioids. These can include:

  • Feelings of elations or happiness
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Sedation
  • Breathing slowing
  • Unconsciousness

When it comes to fentanyl and other opioids, overdose can come quickly. One minute the person may seem to be okay but the next they may be in danger. It’s important to know the warning signs of fentanyl or opioid overdose as well as what to do. 

Signs and Symptoms of a Fentanyl Overdose

The following are signs of a fentanyl overdose as well as general opioid overdose signs:

  • Inability to speak
  • Unconsciousness
  • Faint heartbeat
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Limp limbs
  • Small pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Purple lips and fingernails
  • Pale skin

Sadly, about 128 people die each day from an opioid overdose according to the NIDA. It’s essential to know the signs of an overdose. Once you know these signs, it’s important to know what to do. There are certain drugs that can reverse an overdose when administered in time. 

Naloxone is one type of opioid antagonist with the ability to reverse overdose from opioids. This drug can not only stop the effect of more opioids in the brain and body it also can reverse the effects of opioids. Naloxone comes in a nasal spray or injectable form. Many states allow people to obtain it without a prescription in order to help lessen overdose deaths from opioids. The United States Department of Health and Human Services provides detailed information on Naloxone and how to use it

The first thing to do if you suspect someone has overdosed on any type of substance including fentanyl or another opioid is to call 9-1-1. The Good Samaritan Law protects the person who calls from prosecution if they are also using drugs at that time. Most states now have Good Samaritan Laws. In these states, death from overdose is lower than in those states that don’t have them. 

Treatment for Fentanyl and Opioid Addiction 

Despite the hopelessness that comes with addiction, there are effective treatment programs enabling millions to stop using opioids and live in long-term recovery. For those in active addiction, it may seem like there is no way out, however, that’s not true. There are many who have recovered from the dire state of addiction to opioids, many of whom have gone on to live happy, productive, and fulfilling lives. 

As mentioned, the first step in recovery from fentanyl or opioid addiction is to safely detox from the substance. Once this vital step has been accomplished, the next step is to engage in treatment programs that help to retrain the brain on how it thinks about drugs, pleasure, as well as develop new, healthy habits and coping skills. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT), contingency management, and motivational interviewing have all been found to be helpful in treating opioid addiction. 

In addition to these behavioral therapies, medications are also used in the treatment of opioid and fentanyl addiction. Medications can help to ease the strong cravings and can also block the effects of the drug if it is used. Buprenorphine and methadone are used to help reduce both cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another medication, naltrexone, works to block opioid receptors so that taking fentanyl doesn’t result in the same feelings of euphoria and elation. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to fentanyl or another opioid there is hope and help. At Futures Recovery Healthcare our compassionate, expert staff is dedicated to helping each person who comes to us recover. Our philosophy includes using evidence-based treatment programs along with medications as needed to help individuals safely and fully recover from fentanyl and opioid addiction. 

Call us today at 866-804-2098 to learn more or contact us online. We are here to help you or your loved one find freedom from addiction. 

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