Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally. Like morphine, it is a medicine that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids. Tolerance occurs when you need a higher and/or more frequent amount of a drug to get the desired effects.
In its prescription form, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze Street names for illegally used fentanyl include Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Jackpot, Murder 8, and Tango & Cash.
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths.
What are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Some opioids are made from the plant directly, and others, like fentanyl, are made by scientists in labs using the same chemical structure (semi-synthetic or synthetic).
How do people use fentanyl?
When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be given as a shot, a patch that is put on a person’s skin, or as lozenges that are sucked like cough drops.
The illegally used fentanyl most often associated with recent overdoses is made in labs. This synthetic fentanyl is sold illegally as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like other prescription opioids.
Some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. This is because it takes very little to produce a high with fentanyl, making it a cheaper option. This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive. They might be taking stronger opioids than their bodies are used to and can be more likely to overdose.
How does fentanyl affect the brain?
Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body's opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. After taking opioids many times, the brain adapts to the drug, diminishing its sensitivity, making it hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug. When people become addicted, drug-seeking and drug use take over their lives.
Fentanyl's effects include:
Can you overdose on fentanyl?
Yes, a person can overdose on fentanyl. An overdose occurs when a drug produces serious adverse effects and life-threatening symptoms. When people overdose on fentanyl, their breathing can slow or stop. This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to a coma and permanent brain damage, and even death.
How can a fentanyl overdose be treated?
As mentioned above, many drug dealers mix the cheaper fentanyl with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine to increase their profits, making it often difficult to know which drug is causing the overdose. Naloxone is a medicine that can treat a fentanyl overdose when given right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of opioid drugs. But fentanyl is stronger than other opioid drugs like morphine and might require multiple doses of naloxone.
Can fentanyl use lead to addiction?
Yes. Fentanyl is addictive because of its potency. A person taking prescription fentanyl as instructed by a doctor can experience dependence, which is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. A person can be dependent on a substance without being addicted, but dependence can sometimes lead to addiction.
Addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder(SUD). SUDs are characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug use that can be difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. When someone is addicted to drugs, they continue to use them even though they cause health problems or issues at work, school, or home. A SUD can range from mild to severe.
People addicted to fentanyl who stop using it can have severe withdrawal symptoms that begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken.
These symptoms include:
muscle and bone pain
diarrhea and vomiting
cold flashes with goosebumps
uncontrollable leg movements
These symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and are the reason many people find it so difficult to stop taking fentanyl. There are medicines being developed to help with the withdrawal process for fentanyl and other opioids.
How is fentanyl addiction treated?
Like other opioid addictions, medication with behavioural therapies has been shown to be effective in treating people with fentanyl addiction.
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