Only 20 years ago, fentanyl was something that even most addicts were unaware of, let alone the general public. This highly potent opioid rarely made its way onto the black market and was even more rarely prescribed by doctors.
For a variety of reasons, mostly to do with drug dealers wanting to increase profits, fentanyl has now become one of the most commonly abused opioids today.
For many opioid addicts, fentanyl is not even their drug of choice, yet they still take it because it’s become so widely available (and at a much lower cost than other opioids, like heroin or OxyContin).
Fentanyl, like most opioids, can be extremely dangerous when abused. However, fentanyl is even more dangerous than even heroin — here’s why.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. To put that in perspective, an adult is normally given about 10 mg of morphine for moderate to severe pain. An equivalent dosage of fentanyl could be as little as 0.1 mg.
It was initially developed for the treatment of severe pain, particularly in cancer patients, but because it takes such a tiny amount to achieve the same effect as a much larger dose of other opioids, it’s very easy to accidentally take too much and overdose.
Fentanyl works by binding to the body's opioid receptors, which are found in the areas of the brain that control pain and emotions.
Its effects include:
Why is fentanyl so potent? The answer lies in its chemical structure. Fentanyl is lipophilic, which means it can easily pass through the fat cells in the brain. This allows it to quickly take effect, but it also means it's incredibly dangerous if misused.
The fentanyl crisis is not just about the drug itself, but also about how it's being used and abused. Over the past decade, there's been a significant increase in the number of people using fentanyl recreationally.
This is not always on purpose — fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and counterfeit pills, leading to a surge in overdose deaths.
This illicitly manufactured fentanyl is often more potent and dangerous than what you would get from a doctor, increasing the risk of overdose and death.
In many cases, the drug is not evenly mixed, which means users can accidentally get a much larger dose than they expected.
On top of this, many drug dealers are lying about the fact that their drugs contain fentanyl, or they may not even realize that their drugs are spiked with fentanyl.
Because of its potency, the space between a dose that produces the desired effect and a potentially lethal dose is very small. Even just a few additional grains can kill you.
The reason fentanyl is so widespread is because of this potency. Drug manufacturers can create large quantities of fentanyl and then mix tiny amounts with inert cutting agents. This can then be sold at the same price as equivalent opioids, increasing their profits.
All of this contributes to the epidemic we’re seeing today, and it shows no sign of stopping.
The rise in fentanyl-related deaths has put a tremendous burden on healthcare systems. Emergency departments are struggling to deal with the influx of overdose patients, and public health resources are being stretched thin.
To make matters worse, addiction is a disease that cannot be cured and that is rarely dealt with through a single stint in rehab or detox. Many users find themselves in and out of detox and rehab for years or even decades, further straining the system.
The fentanyl crisis is also making the multi-decade-long opioid epidemic far worse. Many people addicted to opioids are turning to fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent alternative, further fueling the crisis.
If you or someone you know is struggling with fentanyl addiction, it's crucial to seek help immediately. Treatment for fentanyl addiction typically involves some combination of residential treatment, medication, and counseling.
For many fentanyl addicts, the first step is going to detox or a rehab that has a detox wing, where you will have the time and space you need to get through your opioid withdrawals.
After that, you’ll spend some time in the rehab (30 days is common, but some rehabs will allow you to stay for 90 days, 6 months, or even a year or more). Many people then step down to either an intensive outpatient program (IOP), a sober living facility, or both.
It’s very common for people in treatment to begin working the 12 Steps, but that’s not the only method of getting sober and staying that way. SMART Recovery is a popular alternative, and for some people who have a long history of relapsing over and over, medication might be the way to go.
Drugs like Suboxone and methadone can help manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings and may help chronic relapsers to stay on the path to recovery. Once they’ve become stabilized, they can wean off these medications.
Everyone’s recovery journey will be different, so it’s important that you work with professionals who will be able to help you figure out the best way for you to achieve sobriety.
You may encounter stigmas around certain methods of getting sober, but what matters most is that you and the team of professionals supporting you are following a recovery plan unique to your needs.
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Cristal Clark, LPC-S, is the Medical Reviewer for ASIC Recovery Services. She reviews all website content for quality and medical accuracy. She is a master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and graduated from Liberty University in 2011. She has worked in the behavioral and mental health field for over 12 years and has a passion for helping others. She has been clinical director and CEO of a 200 plus bed facility, PHP, and IOP, with experience managing a team of counselors, individual/group/and family therapy, and coordinating continuum of care. Cristal is trained in EMDR and certified in non-violent intervention. She is a member of American Counseling Association and American Association of Christian Counselors.