As opioid-related overdoses jump to epidemic proportions in the United States, we have all heard news reports and stories revolving around Fentanyl—but what is it exactly?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine, but at 50 to 100 times the potency. It was designed in a laboratory to treat severe acute pain, or for patients who were immune to other forms of opioid medications; however, due to its powerful potency, it has now found a home in street-level mixtures of heroin. Knowing what fentanyl is, what it is for, and the dangerous side effects, when taken without doctor supervision, can help prevent fatal overdoses – if you have a loved one actively using opioids, then the following may be life-saving.

The Make-Up Of Fentanyl

Fentanyl, an opioid agonist, is similar to naturally occurring opioids in that it primarily acts upon the mu opioid receptors in the brain. Specifically, is a synthetic, lipophilic phenylpiperidine opioid agonist that is classified as a Schedule II drug by the DEA, and considered highly addictive. When created, fentanyl was designed for acute pain and for patients who were immune or resistant to the effects of other opioid pain relievers such as morphine. The substance has many analogs, and due to potency can be fatal in doses as low as 3mg as compared to 30mg for heroin.

Fentanyl For Chronic Pain Patients

Chronic pain patients should consult with a medical profession before using fentanyl regularly for chronic pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidelines that advise patients, other than those terminally ill, to not exceed 7-10 days of opioid use for pain-related symptoms. Additional, non-narcotic relief interventions, have been proposed that have shown high efficacy for long-term pain reduction. The addiction and physical dependency risk of using synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl, is extremely high when used long-term, and should be avoided if possible.

Dangers Of Fentanyl Use

With a Schedule II classification from the Drug Enforcement Agency, and a black box warning label from the Food and Drug Administration, Fentanyl should be used with extreme caution and only under the direct supervision of medical professionals. Additionally, Fentanyl has been linked to the dramatic increase in drug poisoning deaths (fatal overdoses) in the United States. As little as 3mg of the substance can prove fatal, as compared to 10 times the amount necessary for an overdose from pure heroin. When found on the street, Fentanyl is typically mixed in with heroin, as an adulterant, and users of the mixture might not be aware of the substance in their heroin—increasing the likelihood of drug poisoning and potential death.

Overdose Reversal

As with other opioids, Naloxone may be used to help reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. However, because Fentanyl is more potent than other opioids, additional doses of Naloxone may be necessary to reverse the effects, and the reversal time period may be shortened dramatically. If you or a loved one experience an overdose where Fentanyl is involved, emergency medical attention should be sought immediately, even after naloxone is administered. Long-term opioid use disorder treatment should also be discussed with medical providers following an overdose episode.

Withdrawal, Detox, And Treatment

Fentanyl withdrawal and detox is similar to other opioids and should only be undertaken under the care of licensed medical professionals. Medications can be used throughout the withdrawal and detox process, such as suboxone, that will minimize discomfort and pain and ensure a successful stabilization. Following detox and stabilization, inpatient and outpatient opioid use disorder treatment should be considered in order to increase the likelihood of long-term recovery success. Any treatment should be discussed with your medical team and completed at an approved and licensed facility. The exact duration, intensity, and type of treatment can vary from person to person, and should not be decided by an untrained individual. There are many options, including medication-assisted treatment, that have shown high success with those who have an opioid use disorder.

Fentanyl was designed for prescription use in closely monitored medical settings. However, the synthetic opioids extreme potency and relatively cheap cost have made it a common adulterant in street-available illicit mixtures. If you or a loved one are struggling with an opioid use disorder, recovery is not only possible but likely with the right type of care. Knowing the risks of misusing fentanyl can be life-saving, and starting your journey of recovery today can be life changing. Don’t continue to take chances with your life, find the right help with the guidance of your doctor today.

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.