Fentanyl Addiction: Risks, Symptoms and Treatment

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid developed in 1959 by Dr. Paul Janssen. It is nearly 100 times stronger than morphine and is used as a potent anesthetic. Initially, fentanyl was used in medical settings to provide effective pain relief for patients undergoing surgery or suffering from severe pain. However, its high potency has also made it a target for illegal production and abuse, leading to a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses in recent years.

 

From 2011 to 2018, the landscape of fentanyl use changed drastically. During this period, there was a significant rise in fatal overdoses associated with the abuse of illegally produced fentanyl and its analogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that fentanyl analogs were involved in approximately 2,600 drug overdose deaths each year in 2011 and 2012. This number skyrocketed in the following years as the trafficking, distribution, and abuse of illicit fentanyl increased dramatically.

 

By 2018, the situation had reached a critical point in the opioid crisis. The number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids rose sharply each year. This surge highlights the urgent need for awareness and effective treatment options for those struggling with fentanyl addiction.

Fentanyl Addiction Overview

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid approved by the Food and Drug Administration for pain relief and as an anesthetic, and it works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain, making it highly effective for severe pain management.

 

However, its potency also makes it highly dangerous when misused, increasing the risk of overdose and death even with small amounts. Using fentanyl can also lead to a euphoric high, which is why some people misuse it. Additionally, because fentanyl is so potent, it can be cheaper and more effective even in smaller doses, making it an attractive option for those looking for a stronger high.

Other Common Street Names for Fentanyl

On the streets, fentanyl is known by many names, including:

    • Apache
    • China Girl
    • China Town
    • Dance Fever
    • Friend
    • Goodfellas
    • Great Bear
    • He-Man
    • Jackpot
    • King Ivory
    • Murder 8
    • Tango & Cash

What Fentanyl Looks Like

Fentanyl is typically available in two main forms: powder and liquid.

 

Powdered fentanyl is often pressed into pills that look exactly like prescription medications, such as Percocet or Xanax. This makes it difficult to distinguish from legitimate drugs, increasing the risk of accidental overdose.

 

In its liquid form, illegally made fentanyl can be found as a replacement for heroin. There are also reports of fentanyl being packaged as nasal sprays, patches and eye drops. Additionally, liquid fentanyl can be dropped onto paper or small candies, making it even more challenging to detect.

Other Opioids Similar to Fentanyl

Fentanyl is not the only powerful opioid on the market. Other drugs , such as morphine, oxycodone, and methadone, are also used for pain management. These drugs, like fentanyl, work by altering the brain’s response to pain but differ in potency and duration of effects.

Effects of Fentanyl

Short Term Effects

Similar to other opioid analgesics, fentanyl produces several short-term effects. Users often experience:

    • Relaxation
    • Euphoria
    • Pain relief
    • Sedation
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness
    • Dizziness
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Urinary retention
    • Pupillary constriction
    • Respiratory depression

These effects can be life-threatening if not monitored, especially respiratory depression.

Long Term Effects

Fentanyl is a dangerous drug that can lead to severe long-term side effects. Initially, users might enjoy the euphoric high, but prolonged use brings many adverse consequences. The longer someone abuses fentanyl, the more likely they are to suffer from significant physical and mental health issues. Long-term effects include:

    • Constipation
    • Slow or difficult breathing
    • Slowing heart rate
    • Chest pain
    • Loss of coordination
    • Hallucinations
    • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders
    • Swelling of the face, throat, lips, or tong

Because fentanyl is often mixed with other street drugs, the risk of overdose is high, and such an overdose can be fatal. It is crucial to seek professional help if you or a loved one is struggling with fentanyl addiction.

Fentanyl Abuse

Fentanyl abuse is a serious and growing problem. Even though people know how dangerous it is, they continue to use it because of its strong effects on the brain’s reward system.

 

Fentanyl works by binding to the same opioid receptors as endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, making the user feel the same euphoria and pain relief normally released during stress, pain, and enjoyable activities like laughing, sex, and exercise.

 

As people use fentanyl more, they need higher doses to feel the same effects. This makes it very hard to stop using, even though the risk of overdose and death is high. This cycle of addiction makes fentanyl abuse particularly difficult to overcome.

Signs Of Fentanyl Abuse

Recognizing the signs of fentanyl abuse is crucial for early intervention and prevention of overdose. People who abuse fentanyl may exhibit various symptoms and side effects. Common signs include:

    • Constipation
    • Confusion
    • Drowsiness
    • Slowed breathing
    • Nausea
    • Sedation
    • Unconsciousness

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone else, it’s important to seek help immediately. Early intervention can prevent serious health consequences and potentially save lives.

Fentanyl Overdose: Risks and Treatment

An overdose occurs when fentanyl leads to life-threatening effects. When someone overdoses on fentanyl, their breathing can slow down or stop completely. This reduces the oxygen reaching the brain, leading to a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can result in a coma, brain damage, or even death. An opioid overdose is a medical emergency, but it can be reversed with a medication called naloxone.

 

Particularly, illicitly made fentanyl is a major cause of opioid overdose deaths since illegal drugs and counterfeit pills are often mixed with fentanyl, making them even more dangerous. In fact, by 2021, stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine were commonly the most common drug class found in fentanyl-involved overdose across the U.S.

 

While some people unknowingly use these dangerous mixtures, recent research shows that others are intentionally seeking out the combination of stimulants and fentanyl for a stronger high.

Fentanyl Overdose

The signs of a fentanyl overdose include:

    • Small, constricted, “pinpoint pupils”
    • Loss of consciousness.
    • Choking or gurgling signs.
    • Vomiting.
    • Limp body.
    • Cold and/or clammy skin.
    • Blue or purple fingernails, lips, or skin.

If you suspect someone is experiencing a fentanyl overdose, call 911 immediately. Administer naloxone (Narcan) if available, keep the person awake and breathing, lay them on their side, and stay with them until emergency help arrives.

Overdose Treatment

If you think someone has overdosed on fentanyl, take immediate action. Call 911 right away. Most states have laws that protect both the person overdosing and the caller from legal trouble. If you have naloxone, administer it immediately to reverse the effects of the overdose. Try to keep the person awake and breathing. Turn them on their side to prevent choking, and stay with them until paramedics arrive. Acting quickly can save a life.

Fentanyl Withdrawal and Treatment

Symptoms of Fentanyl Addiction

Addiction is a chronic medical condition that involves complex interactions between brain circuits, genetics, environment, and life experiences. Individuals with addiction engage in uncontrollable substance use despite harmful consequences. You may have a fentanyl addiction if you experience two or more of the following symptoms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5):

 

    • Using more opioids than intended
    • Using opioids for longer than intended
    • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of fentanyl or other opioids
    • Craving to use fentanyl or other opioids
    • Being unable to complete duties at work, school, or home due to opioid use
    • Continuing to use fentanyl or other opioids despite negative impacts on relationships
    • Giving up activities you once enjoyed due to opioid use
    • Frequently using fentanyl or other opioids in physically dangerous situations
    • Continuing to use opioids despite physical or mental problems caused by it
    • Developing tolerance to opioids
    • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping the use of fentanyl or other opioids

 

Even if you use fentanyl as prescribed, it is possible to develop tolerance and experience withdrawal symptoms, indicating dependence. Tolerance and dependence are natural consequences of long-term opioid use. Tolerance means needing more of the drug to achieve the desired effect, while dependence results in withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not taken.

Fentanyl Withdrawal

Individuals who have developed a dependence on fentanyl experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it. These symptoms can include:

    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Achy muscles and bones
    • Cold flashes
    • Goosebumps
    • Uncontrollable leg movements
    • Diarrhea
    • Insomnia
    • Severe cravings

Opioid use disorder occurs when opioid use starts to dominate a person’s life, leading to continued use despite negative consequences. There is no way to predict who will develop an addiction, but factors such as higher doses, longer use, early start, or a family history of substance use disorders increase the risk.

Treatments for Fentanyl Addiction

If you or a loved one struggles with fentanyl use, there are treatment options available. Effective treatment is tailored to each person’s needs and may include:

 

    • Detox: Medically managed detoxification is often the first step. It allows your body to safely rid itself of fentanyl while managing withdrawal symptoms under medical supervision.
    • Inpatient Rehab: Inpatient treatment involves 24/7 care in a hospital or residential center. It includes individual and group counseling, education, behavioral therapies, and medication if needed. Living in the treatment facility helps you focus on recovery without the stress of daily life.
    • Outpatient Rehab: Outpatient programs require you to attend counseling sessions and therapies at a treatment center but allow you to return home or to a sober living environment afterward.
    • Aftercare: Also known as continuing care, aftercare provides community support and accountability after completing a formal treatment program. It may include mutual-help groups and sober living environments.

 

The length of treatment for fentanyl addiction depends on the severity of the addiction, specific treatment needs, and continued engagement with treatment. Substance use disorders are chronic diseases, and recovery is a lifelong commitment. Staying in treatment for the full duration and setting up a supportive lifestyle afterward can help you maintain long-term sobriety.

Finding Help and Support

If you or a loved one is struggling with fentanyl addiction, it’s crucial to seek help and support as soon as possible. Addiction is a complex and challenging condition, but recovery is possible with the right resources and assistance.

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