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What is Fentanyl Used For?

Forms of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetically produced opioid prescribed to control pain during surgery, treat severe post-surgical pain, and to treat chronic pain in those for whom other opioids are no longer effective. It is 50 times more potent than heroin, and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is a drug that can be used relatively safely and effectively when used as prescribed, but one that can be deadly when misused or used illegally.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that fentanyl be labeled with a black box warning. This warning alerts doctors and consumers that the drug carries a high risk for abuse, addiction, overdose, and death.

Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, was quoted in U.S, News and World Report that findings, “solidly confirm what front-line health care and law enforcement professionals…know from firsthand experience: deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the main drivers of drug overdose deaths in the United States.” Richter goes on to warn, “It only takes a tiny amount of the drug to cause a deadly reaction.”

How Does Fentanyl Affect the Body and Brain?

Fentanyl affects the brain and body within a few minutes, delivering a sedative, relaxing effect, reducing pain, and delivering a sense of euphoria and well-being. These same effects are what causes fentanyl to be highly desirable as a recreational drug.

One of the dangers of fentanyl is that it depresses the respiratory system, which can cause breathing to slow or stop. If breathing is too slow, insufficient oxygen reaches the brain which could lead to coma, brain damage, or death.

Drug dealers often mix fentanyl in with heroin, meth, cocaine, or MDMA, which increases the likelihood of overdosing on these drugs. Illegal use of fentanyl is most often linked to fentanyl overdose deaths.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) cites fentanyl as posing the greatest threat to those using opioids in the U.S., stating, “The use of fentanyl will continue to cause overdoses and deaths, as distributors and users alike often are unaware of what substance(s) they are selling or consuming respectively.”

Underscoring the danger, the DEA points to alarming statistics, “In 2016, 19,413 Americans died from drug poisoning deaths involving synthetic opioids—an increase of 110 percent from 2015…the CDC has reported fentanyl as the drug responsible for most of the deaths in this category.”

Common Side Effects of Fentanyl Use

Side effects, sometimes serious, are possible with any medication. Common side effects of fentanyl use may include: gastro-intestinal distress, confusion, agitation, insomnia, dry mouth, shaking, vomiting, and more. Side effects should always be discussed with the prescribing physician.

Warning Signs of Possible Fentanyl Overdose

Certain side effects could be a sign of too much fentanyl in the body and could be signaling an overdose. An overdose can occur from both prescription fentanyl and from recreational use of fentanyl. If a person exhibits any of the following signs, it may be a medical emergency:

  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Confused, unaware of where he/she is
  • Not talking normally
  • Extreme fatigue, body limp
  • Dangerously slow respirations, difficulty breathing
  • Slow heartrate
  • Dizzy, difficulty sitting up
  • Difficulty walking
  • Seizures

If these symptoms are present, medical help should be summoned immediately. Hospitals or first responders can administer a drug called naloxone (Narcan) which may reverse a fentanyl overdose, but it is not always successful.

As with most prescription drugs, fentanyl has valuable applications, but misuse or illegal use of the drug can lead to dependence, addiction, and death.

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