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. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, there are two types of the drug:
- Pharmaceutical fentanyl, which is primarily prescribed to manage severe pain, such as with cancer and end-of-life palliative care. As a prescription, it is known by such names as Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze.
- Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl—frequently referred to as the illicitly manufactured version —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 version accounts for the vast majority of fentanyl-related overdose deaths.
There are also analog versions of the drug, meaning different forms 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 analog detected in the U.S.—is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
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 its ingested in the body.
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 the drug 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.
The drug 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 the drug, 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 its 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 is responsible for nearly half of all opioid-related deaths in the United States.
- Overdose deaths involving fentanyl recently surpassed more than 28,000, up from 3,000 in 2013.
- In 2017, 59 percent of opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl, compared to 14.3 percent in 2010.
- S. Customs and Border Protection officials seized 1,785lb of fentanyl in 2018, compared to 70lb in 2015.
- Overdose deaths involving the drug increased by 47 percent in 2017 alone.
- Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults under 55 in the United States.
- Recent increases in drug overdose deaths in the United States contributed to reductions in the country’s life expectancy, a pattern unprecedented since World War II.
- The largest increase in fentanyl-related overdose death rates occurred among males aged 25-44 in 2017.
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