Fentanyl: More Dangerous Than Heroin
Fentanyl is an opioid drug, a synthetic substance based on the natural compound morphine. Other opioids include heroin and prescription narcotic painkillers like hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. Legal, prescription opioids like fentanyl are used most often to manage pain. Most are prescribed for moderate and chronic pain. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and is therefore typically prescribed for severe pain and for patients who need pain management but have become tolerant to other opioids.
Legal, prescription fentanyl and illicit analogues of fentanyl are targeted for abuse because they produce a sense of relaxation and euphoria. The effect is similar to other opioids, but because of its potency may be even more intense. Fentanyl is even more potent than heroin. This high potency makes fentanyl extremely addictive. Misuse easily leads to addiction, but so can legal use of the drug when prescribed by a doctor.
Addiction to fentanyl is characterized by overuse and misuse of the drug and an inability to limit how much and how often it is used. Addiction also causes tolerance, a need to take more of the drug to get the same effect. Someone who is addicted to fentanyl continues to use it in spite of problems it causes. Eventually this misuse leads to cravings and very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, which together makes it almost impossible to stop using the drug.
How Fentanyl Affects the Body
Most of the action of fentanyl occurs in the brain, where it attaches to opioid receptors triggering a flood of chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals cause the euphoric sensation that someone misusing fentanyl is looking for, but they also cause changes to the brain with repeated use. Over time and with repeated use of fentanyl, the brain’s natural release of endorphins slows way down to compensate. This, along with other changes in the brain, leads to addiction.
In the short-term, fentanyl use may cause a number of side effects. These are mostly not dangerous, but they can be uncomfortable and some may cause significant distress or health problems, including:
- Dry mouth
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Disturbed thinking and unusual dreams
- Anxiety and depression
- Difficulty urinating
- Drowsiness and lethargy
- Impaired memory or ability to concentrate
- Stomach pain and gas
- Vision changes
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Swelling in the arms, feet, and legs
- Back pains or chest pains
The Risks of Overdose
All opioid drugs can cause an overdose that may be fatal. These drugs are central nervous system depressants. They cause activity in the brain and spinal cord to slow down, which leads to reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Dangerous amounts of opioids can cause respiration to slow to a degree that a person stops breathing. If not reversed immediately, this is fatal. The risk of an overdose with fentanyl is higher than with other opioids because of its elevated potency.
Statistics demonstrate that fentanyl is a major player in a significant proportion of drug overdose deaths and that it is present in many deaths attribute to opioid misuse. The most recent statistics show that single opioid overdose deaths are down, but those that involve fentanyl and another drug are on the rise. In 2016, the number of overdose deaths in the U.S. that involved fentanyl spiked, with a 540 percent increase over a three-year period. Signs of fentanyl overdose include:
- A decreased urge to breathe or difficulty breathing
- Shallow, slow breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Extreme drowsiness
- Loss of consciousness
Overdose triggered by fentanyl is a medical emergency and will lead to death if not treated immediately. Anyone who suspects that someone is overdosing should call for emergency help. First responders carry naloxone, an opioid antagonist that if administered in time can reverse the effect of an opioid like fentanyl and reverse the overdose.
Fentanyl Combined with Other Drugs
The risk of overdose when using fentanyl alone is high, but this drug is often used in combination with other drugs, whether the person using fentanyl is aware of it or not. Fentanyl is often combined with other opioids, like heroin or prescription painkillers, to make the euphoric effect more intense. Another popular combination is fentanyl with cocaine. Any combination with another depressant is especially dangerous, because the effects on respiration are additive. This includes alcohol, benzodiazepines, and other opioids.
When a person is addicted to fentanyl they will do nearly anything to get another dose, without considering the purity of the drug. This can be very dangerous because, if the person is not aware that they are using a combination of drugs, they may use a quantity that is sufficient to cause an overdose without realizing it until it is too late.
Physical and Mental Health Complications of Fentanyl Addiction
Long-term use of fentanyl can cause serious complications that reach into all areas of a person’s life. These include health problems that result from repeated and heavy use of the drug. For instance, because opioids slow respiration, over time this can cause damage to the lungs and to the heart. The higher the doses used, the more likely there is to be damage, and the risk also increases when fentanyl is used with other depressants, like other opioids, alcohol, or sleep aids. This slowed respiration also puts users at risk for sleep apnea, or cessation of breathing while asleep.
Other long-term health issues include infectious diseases, which may be transmitted when users share needles. These include HIV and hepatitis B and C. Using the drug intravenously can also lead to collapsed veins and serious bacterial infections. Long-term use of fentanyl can cause damage to organs beyond the heart and lungs, including kidney and liver damage.
Addiction to fentanyl also has risks for mental health. Mental illnesses, especially anxiety disorders and depression, often co-occur with misuse of fentanyl and addiction. Someone may have an underlying mental illness with symptoms triggered by use of the drug, but misuse of fentanyl can also put a person at a greater risk of developing a mental health condition or symptoms like anxiety and depression.
Other Complications of Fentanyl Addiction
In addition to the mental and physical health risks of long-term misuse of fentanyl, there are other potential complications that can also be very serious. These complications can be far-reaching and may impact several areas of a person’s life:
- Broken or challenging relationships
- Isolation from family and friends
- Inability to perform at work or school
- Unwanted pregnancies
- Financial troubles and poverty
- Legal troubles
- Physical harm form risky behaviors, such as assault injuries, sexual assault, or sexually transmitted diseases
The dangers of fentanyl addiction are numerous. This highly-addictive opioid drug is risky even for people using it under the direction of a doctor. With such a high potency, fentanyl carries a greater risk of dependence than other opioids and also a greater risk of overdose and death.
Addiction can also cause significant physical and emotional health problems, which may persist for years or be permanent. Other complications, like isolation or legal troubles, can also have long-term, damaging consequences for someone addicted to fentanyl. Getting treatment for this difficult addiction is essential, as it is nearly impossible to stop using without assistance. Professional, comprehensive, and residential treatment for at least a few months can help someone living with a fentanyl addiction recover.