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What is Fentanyl? Side effects and Statistics

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

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What is Fentanyl

What is Fentanyl? Side effects and Statistics

More than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017, a record total according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is about 12,000 more American deaths than the entire Vietnam War.

More than 28,000 of those deaths involved a powerful synthetic opioid—50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine—called fentanyl.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic (meaning it is man-made) opioid legally prescribed by doctors to treat moderate to severe pain, first developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients.[1] According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, there are two types of fentanyl:

  • Pharmaceutical fentanyl, which is primarily prescribed to manage severe pain, such as with cancer and end-of-life palliative care. As a prescription, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze.
  • Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl—frequently referred to as illicitly manufactured fentanyl—is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine, or pressed into counterfeit pills without the user’s knowledge to create a cheaper and more potent product. The CDC suggests that non-pharmaceutical fentanyl accounts for the vast majority of fentanyl-related overdose deaths.

There are also fentanyl analogs, meaning different forms of fentanyl that are similar in chemical structure but more potent and more difficult to detect due to the requirement of specialized toxicology testing. For example, Carfentanil—the most potent fentanyl analog detected in the U.S.—is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.[2]

Fentanyl is a Schedule II narcotic under the United States Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

What are the Side Effects of Fentanyl?

Fentanyl binds to opioid receptors in the brain just like heroin, morphine and other opioids. These receptors control pain and emotions, often resulting in intense pleasure and euphoria when fentanyl is ingested in the body.[3]

Fentanyl effects include temporary feelings of euphoria, extreme happiness, drowsiness, nausea, sedation, constipation, and pupil constriction.

Dangers of Fentanyl Abuse

A more serious side effect of fentanyl is respiratory depression, meaning breathing either slows or stops completely. This inhibits the flow of oxygen to the brain—a condition called hypoxia—leading to brain damage, coma, or death.

Fentanyl contributes to nearly half of all opioid-related deaths in the United States, often ingested without the user’s knowledge. It is also responsible for overdose deaths involving non-opioid drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website, it accounts for “40.3% of cocaine-involved overdose deaths; 31.0% of benzodiazepine-involved overdose deaths; and 20.8% of antidepressant-related deaths.”

NIDA adds that:

The authors (of studies related to fentanyl death rates) caution that lack of awareness about the potency of fentanyl, along with its variability, availability and increasing contamination of the illicit drug supply, poses substantial risks to people who use drugs.

They emphasize the need for widespread public health education and training of clinicians and first responders about fentanyl risks, suggest they be equipped with multiple doses of naloxone to reverse overdose, and call for expanded access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.


Fentanyl is also highly addictive. Users often experience rapid tolerance—that, is, needing more and more of the drug to experience a high—leading to dependence and intense withdrawal symptoms if drug use discontinues. Withdrawal symptoms include muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, uncomfortable leg movements, and severe cravings.

Fentanyl Statistics

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David moved to California from his hometown in North Carolina after multiple failed attempts to get sober. While living in an all-male sober living, David started to excel as a leader and mentor. These skills and tools ended up being the catalyst for his recovery and ultimately the foundation he has today. David has a passion for helping young men and sharing his experience. After working in the treatment industry he noticed a serious need for ethical sober living facilities. This prior work experience brought about David’s idea and drive to open Design For Recovery. He’s ambitious to promote growth and change within each individual client that enters the house. David has a strong presence in the house and continues to be part of mentoring young men on a daily basis.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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