Opioid use in the United States is at epidemic levels, and part of the problem is fentanyl. This highly-potent (and therefore highly-addictive) drug is causing an increase in opioid-related deaths.
If you suspect someone you know is abusing fentanyl, he or she may need help. This is what you need to know about fentanyl and how it could be affecting someone you love.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain. More powerful than morphine by up to 100 times, it's generally used to treat what's referred to as breakthrough pain ("sudden episodes of pain that occur despite round the clock treatment with pain medication"), typically in cancer patients, though it can occasionally be prescribed to manage chronic pain.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that pharmaceutical fentanyl can be given to a patient by an injection, patch, or lozenge; brand names include Actiq, Abstral, Fentora, and Onsolis. Illegally produced fentanyl may be sold as a powder or mixed with heroin.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule II drug, which means it has "...a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence."
In 2015, the DEA called fentanyl a threat to public health and safety. Noting the increased accessibility of illegally-created fentanyl, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited about 9,500 deaths that year as a result of overdoses on synthetic opioids like fentanyl (not including methodone). That showed an increase of 72 percent between 2014 and 2015.
Effects of Fentanyl and Signs of Addiction
"Opioids trigger the release of endorphins, your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins muffle your perception of pain and boost feelings of pleasure, creating a temporary but powerful sense of well-being. When an opioid dose wears off, you may find yourself wanting those good feelings back, as soon as possible. This is the first milestone on the path toward potential addiction."
Unfortunately, it has other side effects, as well, including but not limited to:
- Unusual Dreams and Thinking Patterns
- Trouble Sleeping
- Agitation and Confusion
- Fast Heartbeat
- Muscle Twitching
- Rash or Hives
- Shallow Breathing
You may notice these as indications that someone is using or abusing fentanyl. In addition, someone who is addicted to drugs may exhibit other signs, such as:
- Regular use of the drug: several times a day over a long period of time.
- Problems at work or school.
- Avoidance of responsibilities or social events.
- Physical and behavioral changes.
- Criminal behavior, such as stealing, in an effort to obtain the drug.
- Reduced sensitivity to pain.
- Engagement in risky activities.
- Problems with money, or sudden requests for financial assistance.
There are also some risk factors associated with opioid abuse. Though these factors are no indication that someone you know is indeed using or addicted to fentanyl, they can increase the risk of addiction if the person has been prescribed fentanyl or introduced to an illegal form of the drug:
- Family or personal history of drug abuse.
- History of criminal activity.
- Mental disorders, depression, or anxiety.
- Exposure to high-risk people or environments.
- Issues with employers or family members.