Fentanyl Abuse, Health Effects & Recovery

Fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid that can cause a deadly overdose in tiny amounts, was once little-known by the majority of Americans but has in recent years become one of the most talked-about drugs in the U.S. Fentanyl is often produced illegally and has been found in heroin as well as numerous other street drugs and counterfeit pills.1,2
About Fentanyl

What Is Fentanyl & What Is It Prescribed For?

Fentanyl solution

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50-100x more powerful than morphine. It is typically prescribed for the management of very severe pain (such as post-surgical pain or severe trauma) or for chronic pain in patients who have become tolerant to less-potent opioids.3

Fentanyl is prescribed in several forms, including injectable preparations, patches, lozenges, tablets, sprays, and films.1,4 Brand names for fentanyl include: 1,4

  • Duragesic.
  • Sublimaze.
  • Subsys.
  • Actiq.
  • Fentora.

Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, or IMF, is an illegally made form of fentanyl and is the form most often linked to deadly overdose. IMF may be sold on the street:1

  • As a powder.
  • On blotter paper.
  • In eye droppers.
  • In nasal sprays.
  • In counterfeit opioid pills (e.g., as “oxycodone”).

Fentanyl is cheap to make illicitly and produces a powerful high, so it is often added to other illegal drugs as filler—including heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine—and sold to unsuspecting buyers.1

Effects & Risks

Short-Term Effects of Fentanyl

Drowsy man holding eye openShortly after using fentanyl, a person may experience:1,5

  • Extreme pleasure (euphoria).
  • Relaxation.
  • Pain relief.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Sedation.
  • Dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Constricted pupils.
  • Constipation.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Is Fentanyl Addictive?

Yes. All opioids have addictive potential, and fentanyl is far more potent than most other addictive opioids. When someone abuses fentanyl, they put themselves at significant risk for addiction. The compulsion to seek out and use fentanyl despite adverse or harmful consequences is the hallmark of a fentanyl addiction.1

Fentanyl Overdose

It takes only a very small amount of fentanyl to cause a potentially deadly overdose, and unfortunately fentanyl-involved overdoses have skyrocketed in the U.S.6 Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are now the most common cause of drug overdose in the country.1

Signs of a fentanyl overdose may include:7,8

  • Loss of consciousness (or lacking responsiveness to stimuli).
  • Blue tint to lips or fingernails.
  • Cold or clammy skin.
  • Extremely small pupils.
  • Breathing problems (slowed or stopped breathing).

Someone who has overdosed on fentanyl needs immediate medical attention. A fentanyl overdose may result in hypoxia (lack of enough oxygen to the brain) which can lead to brain damage, coma, or death.1

Because fentanyl is sometimes added to other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, MDMA, or methamphetamine, it may not be immediately clear which substance has caused the overdose.1  If you believe the person you’re with is showing the signs of an opioid overdose (listed above) but you’re not sure what drugs they’ve taken, get medical help immediately.

First, call 911. Then you can administer naloxone if you have it. Naloxone (brand name: Narcan or Kloxxado) will not harm a person who has no opioids in their system.9 You may need to administer more than one dose of naloxone due to the potency of fentanyl.9 Stay with the person until medical assistance arrives, and if they aren’t conscious, lay them on their side to prevent them from choking on their own vomit.

Learn how to use naloxone and the steps to take in an opioid overdose emergency.

 

Signs of Abuse

How Does Prescription Fentanyl Use Turn into Abuse or Addiction?

As an incredibly potent opioid with the ability to cause a very strong euphoric high, fentanyl has a powerful addictive potential. Someone prescribed the medication may begin to abuse it for the high. 11 Abuse of fentanyl can take several forms:11

  • Taking fentanyl in doses higher than prescribed.
  • Taking fentanyl more often than prescribed.
  • Taking fentanyl in ways other than prescribed (e.g., removing the gel contents from a fentanyl patch and then ingesting or injecting the contents).
  • Taking someone else’s fentanyl.
  • Taking fentanyl to get high.

Someone who is abusing prescription fentanyl may:12

  • Appear over-sedated.
  • Lose their ability to function as normal.
  • Frequently report having lost their medication or having it stolen.
  • Regularly request early refills.
  • Regularly request increases in dosage/amount of fentanyl from prescriber.
  • Seek out fentanyl from sources other than primary prescriber.
  • Frequently display withdrawal symptoms (flu-like symptoms including runny nose, teary eyes, nausea, and vomiting) at doctor’s appts.
  • Complain of increasing pain even if their disease has not worsened.
  • Dismiss any treatment options that don’t include fentanyl or other opioids.

With continued use and misuse of fentanyl, addiction may develop. Addiction is a chronic disorder marked by the inability to control one’s use of fentanyl or other substances despite all of the hardships it causes, such as job loss, health problems, and relationship issues. 13,14

Signs of Fentanyl Abuse and Addiction

Someone who is abusing or addicted to fentanyl or other opioids may exhibit signs such as:8,13,14

  • Small pupils.
    Tolerance (needing more and more fentanyl to experience the desired effects).
  • Frequent flu-like withdrawal symptoms.
  • Strong cravings for opioids such as fentanyl.
  • Overdosing on fentanyl, heroin or other opioids.
  • Decreased performance at work or school because of fentanyl use.
  • Relationship problems relating to fentanyl or opioid use.
  • An inability to cut back or stop using fentanyl, despite a desire to do so.
  • Continuing to use fentanyl or opioids when it has created or worsened physical or psychological health problems.

 

Recovery

Fentanyl Detox & Addiction Treatment

Treatment for fentanyl addiction may begin with a period of medical detox and move on to behavioral treatment that is rooted in individual and group therapy.

Medications that are FDA-approved for treating opioid use disorder may also be used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and to support sobriety long-term.15

Fentanyl Withdrawal & Medical Detox

Fentanyl use may lead to dependence, which is a normal physiological adaptation wherein a person’s body comes to need a drug to avoid withdrawal.1  Should someone dependent on fentanyl or other opioids stop using them or significantly reduce their dose, typical opioid withdrawal symptoms will arise, such as:1

  • Aches and pains in the muscles and bones.
  • Insomnia.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting
  • Chills and goosebumps.
  • Restless legs.
  • Strong cravings for opioids.

Opioid symptoms can be very hard to manage alone, and withdrawal avoidance keeps many people using opioids like fentanyl beyond the point that has stopped being enjoyable.1 In a medical detox facility, a caring staff of doctors and nurses can administer medications and provide comfort care and support to ease the withdrawal process and lessen the likelihood of a relapse back to opioids.16

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment

Man in group therapy

Detox without additional treatment is often ineffective in supporting long-term sobriety.17 Additional treatment such as behavioral therapy is generally needed to avoid returning to fentanyl or opioid use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—which involves the co-use of behavioral therapy and medications—has been effective for treating those struggling with fentanyl addiction.1,18

Behavioral therapies, for example cognitive-behavioral therapy, will help the addicted person uncover the problems and triggers that led them to abuse fentanyl and learn new coping skills. They can also help the person to grow their motivation for positive change.1

Medications can further bolster a person’s recovery efforts, helping to reduce cravings and prevent relapse.18 Opioid MAT medications include methadone, buprenorphine (Suboxone), and naltrexone.18 Both methadone and buprenorphine may be initiated during detox to curb withdrawal symptoms, but naltrexone cannot be given until detox is complete.16,18

MAT medications are safe to use long-term (even for a lifetime, if needed) and they do not substitute one addiction for another. Evidence has shown that these medications have  can help people with opioid use disorders to lead self-directed, fulfilling lives. Studies have shown that these medications are associated with an increase in treatment engagement, reduction of criminal activity, and strengthen the ability to find and maintain employment, among other benefits.15

To learn how we can help you or a loved one fight fentanyl addiction, call us today at .