What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a type of opioid that is manmade and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. It is both the deadliest and most addictive type of opioid available. Fentanyl is prescribed for pain management, but given its highly addictive nature, should only be prescribed for very short period of time. It’s possible to become dependent on fentanyl in just a few days despite taking the pills as prescribed. If you or someone you know has been prescribed fentanyl, it’s critical to keep an eye out for signs of fentanyl addiction.
Fentanyl is both a prescription drug and a street drug. Sometimes prescription fentanyl is prescribed and sold illegally, and sometimes it is made in illegal labs. Like all types of opioids (synthetic) and opiates (naturally sourced from poppy plants), morphine is an element of the drug. As such, fentanyl is used to treat severe pain and is sometimes used in end of life care. In rare cases, fentanyl may be prescribed as a long-term pain management solution for patients who are highly resistant to other types of opioids. It is very rare for a person to have a tolerance to opioids besides fentanyl unless they are an opioid addict.
Signs of Fentanyl Use
One of the early signs of fentanyl abuse is taking the pills, but not as prescribed. This might mean taking more pills than advised or taking fentanyl longer than what a doctor recommended. Another sign is simply seeking out fentanyl. Some addicts go from one pain clinic to another getting multiple prescriptions. There are some measures in place to prevent this from happening, but clinics don’t always effectively share information with one another. And of course, a person might also be able to buy fentanyl on the street.
Once a person has become dependent on fentanyl, they will likely take the pills in secret. This is relatively easy to do. Many people continue to take fentanyl orally, but others choose to start snorting crushed fentanyl to achieve a faster, stronger high. If someone is snorting fentanyl, that’s nearly a guarantee that they are addicted.
Although most people either take fentanyl orally or snort it, it can also be prescribed as a shot or worn as a patch. Sometimes patients are prescribed fentanyl in the form of a hard candy. When created in an illegal lab, fentanyl might be available as a powder, hidden in eyedroppers, or made to look like other types of pills. Makers of these illegal fentanyl drugs can get very creative. They might hide them in a nasal spray or drop it onto a piece of paper. It doesn’t take much in physical size for fentanyl to offer devastating consequences.
Fentanyl is dangerous enough as-is, but in illegal labs it can be mixed with other types of drugs like heroin, MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, or meth. Fentanyl itself is pretty cheap to make, and mixing it with other drugs can command a higher price on the street. However, drug dealers aren’t particularly known for their values. Many people who buy fentanyl off the street can’t be sure exactly what they’re buying or know what’s inside it. This is one of the reasons overdoses are skyrocketing. Another reason, of course, is simply because of the dangerous nature of fentanyl.
Chemically, fentanyl works similarly to heroin and morphine in the body and brain. It binds to the opioid receptors in the body, which are located in the brain’s region that controls both pain and emotions. The brain gets used to fentanyl very quickly, which makes it difficult for users to get the same high with the same dose. It also makes the brain struggle to feel calmness, happiness, and other positive emotions without fentanyl.
Fentanyl abuse in the long run will often lead to the addiction getting in the way of daily activities. Fentanyl is a strong sleep aid, although those with a tolerance might appear to operate somewhat normally by keeping a job or other commitments. However, addicts most of the time withdraw from their usual social obligations. They might suddenly have financial issues because they’re spending everything they have to feed their habit.
Fentanyl Withdrawal Symptoms
Once a fentanyl addict is ready to get help, it’s very important that they only do so in a monitored medical setting. Since fentanyl is so strong and addictive, it can be even more dangerous to go through withdrawal symptoms. Some of the milder symptoms include nausea, vomiting, tremors, intense fatigue, and sweating. Severe symptoms can affect the heart.
The severity of withdrawal symptoms will vary person to person. Every addict—and addiction—is different. There’s no way to gauge if a person can safely stop using fentanyl on their own. Someone who seems like they don’t have a major addiction might actually be at high risk of life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if they stop cold turkey or without medical guidance.
Those going through withdrawal often report:
- Pain in muscles and bones
- Intense cravings
- Severe cold flashes
These particular symptoms can be painful, but they aren’t dangerous. However, they are often uncomfortable enough to make a person go back to their fentanyl addiction. There is a drug available, lofexidine, that can help with withdrawal symptoms while remaining safe for the user. Some fentanyl addicts use a type of electrical nerve stimulator to make the symptoms less severe. This can be worn for a maximum of five days.
Antidote for Overdose
One thing you can do if you’re worried about a loved one with a fentanyl addiction is to carry the antidote drug with you. One such drug is called naloxone. It’s an easy-to-administer drug that can bring a person back to life if they recently overdosed on fentanyl. Of course, this antidote needs to be applied very quickly. You can’t keep a constant eye on someone with a fentanyl addiction, but you can take simple measures like always having naloxone on you to help with possible overdoses.
Overdoses can be treated in various ways, and the fact that some fentanyl is mixed with other drugs can make it impossible for even well-trained first responders to realize what antidote to give. Naloxone is the most common. This antidote binds to opioid receptors and effectively stops the opioid’s effects. The amount of antidote needed will depend on how much fentanyl a person has in their body.
Antidote drugs aren’t available in all states and regions. If you think that you or someone you love is suffering from a fentanyl addiction, talk to your doctor about an antidote prescription.
Side Effects of Fentanyl Use
Fentanyl comes with a lot of side effects including extreme happiness, confusion, fatigue, and sedation. It can also cause constipation, issues breathing, and can render someone unconscious. People die from an overdose because the drug dramatically slows or stops a person’s breathing. This, of course, means no oxygen is reaching the brain. A fentanyl death is caused by hypoxia, although a person may fall into a coma or suffer brain damage instead of the overdose leading to death.
Street Names for Fentanyl
Fentanyl goes by a lot of names, and some people simply call them “opioids.” The actual brand names it can go by when issued as a prescription include: Actiq, Sublimaze, and Duragesic. Recreationally, you might hear it referred to as China Girl, Jackpot, Murder 8, Apache, or China White. However, nicknames can vary region to region.
If you know or suspect someone you care about is abusing opioids, it’s a good idea to try and figure out what type of opioid they’re using. Fentanyl is now involved in 59 percent of opioid-related deaths, whereas it was responsible for just 14.3 percent nine years ago. Clearly, fentanyl abuse and accessibility is on the rise.
Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction
Fentanyl addiction is often treated with a combination of behavioral therapy and medications. For the best treatment results, it is always best to work with an established rehabilitation center that specializes in opioid addictions. Two of the most common medications used in treatment are methadone and buprenorphine. These drugs also bind to the opioid receptors, but do so in order to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
In counseling, behavioral therapists work with fentanyl addicts to pinpoint which characteristics led them toward an addiction. Here, they can learn healthy avenues for managing life and the tools necessary to avoid dangerous situations in the future. A myriad of therapies may be used, including cognitive behavioral therapy. This helps an addict shift their behavior, self-talk, and expectations while empowering them to know and manage their triggers. There’s also contingency management, which is a type of reward system where addicts can earn points when they test negative on drug tests. Motivational interviewing might also be used, and is helpful in tackling a person’s feelings towards big changes.
It’s paramount to remember that most fentanyl addicts start by taking what they believed was a safe drug from their doctor. However, fentanyl from illegal labs can be particularly dangerous and come in a variety of ways.
Still, hope is not lost and help is available. An addict needs and deserves the best care and treatment in an excellent facility with a highly-trained medical team if they want to have the best chance to recover from a fentanyl addiction. Unlike other drugs, such as heroin, fentanyl is relatively easy to access. This can make it particularly difficult to break the addiction cycle, but those who are ready to get help need to know that the sooner treatment begins the faster a person can reclaim their life.