Fentanyl: What is it? Why is it so dangerous?

What is fentanyl?

A lethal dose of Fentanyl on the tip of a pencil

Fentanyl is an opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. It’s also a synthetic drug, meaning it has to be made in a lab. Legal fentanyl comes in the form of transdermal patches and lozenges, while illicit fentanyl also comes in powder. 

It is often used during surgery, but it can also be prescribed by doctors to manage pain. The patients who are most often prescribed fentanyl are those with cancer or chronic pain conditions. 

However, most cases of fentanyl overdose are linked to illegally made fentanyl that does not come from a hospital setting. Illegal fentanyl production has skyrocketed in recent years because it is cheap to manufacture, a small amount goes a long way, and it can be easily mixed with other drugs to increase their euphoric effects.

How does fentanyl work?

Once ingested, fentanyl will start influencing the body almost immediately and will cause a feeling of euphoria. This happens because fentanyl attaches to receptors in the brain and spinal cord and blocks feelings of pain. 

Fentanyl directly influences the central nervous system and targets the receptors responsible for pain, motivation, and reward. It also affects others systems like the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, and the respiratory system. In fact, during an overdose, fentanyl will repress the respiratory system so much that breathing stops completely. 

Why do some people intentionally use fentanyl?

fentanyl 101

Fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs like heroin or cocaine to increase their potency and euphoric effects. Over time, frequent opioid users can build up a tolerance to drugs like heroin, and may decide to switch to fentanyl due to its stronger effects. Others are prescribed fentanyl by their doctors to help manage pain. 

Additionally, some people who take illicit Xanax, Adderall, or Oxycodone without a prescription think they’re taking the same drugs they would get at a pharmacy. But instead the pills they’re taking are counterfeit versions that contain fentanyl. 

Regardless of how someone is introduced to fentanyl–no one deserves to die. 

How can you spot a fentanyl or opioid overdose?

If you are with someone who is experiencing an overdose, it’s vital to call 911, administer naloxone if available, and begin performing CPR if the person isn’t breathing. 

If you aren’t sure if someone is experiencing an overdose, here are the signs to look out for: 

  • Doesn’t wake up and doesn’t respond to voice or touch 
  • Breathing is slow, shallow, or has stopped completely 
  • Small, pinpoint-like pupils 
  • Blue-ish lips and nose 
  • Unresponsive/limp
  • A person is awake but unable to talk 
  • Slow pulse, erratic pulse, or no pulse 
  • Vomiting 
  • Making deep snoring, choking, or gurgling sounds 

Research shows that bystanders are more likely to be called upon to use naloxone than CPR. With that in mind, there's one simple thing you can do to save lives: carry naloxone. Will you take the pledge to carry naloxone?

What are some myths about fentanyl? 

One myth is that fentanyl is “naloxone resistant.” This is simply not true. Fentanyl will respond to naloxone if someone is overdosing. However, more than one dose may be needed to revive someone from an overdose because fentanyl is so much stronger than other opioids. This is yet another reason why it’s important to call 911 immediately if someone is experiencing an overdose. 

Another common myth is that you can overdose from fentanyl simply by touching it. Again, this is not true. Powdered fentanyl must be introduced into the bloodstream or a mucus membrane in order to feel its effects. 

A final myth is that illicit cannabis is being laced with fentanyl. This myth seems to have been popularized by a few misinformed articles that have been spread online. However, there is no evidence that suggests fentanyl is being laced or dusted onto cannabis flower. 

A collage of photos

Last year, more than 107,000 lives were lost to overdose.

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