Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a schedule II prescription drug, and it is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids. In its prescription form, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®. Street names for fentanyl or for fentanyl-laced heroin include Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT, and Tango and Cash.
When prescribed by a physician, fentanyl is often administered via injection, transdermal patch, or in lozenges. However, the fentanyl and fentanyl analogs associated with recent overdoses are produced in clandestine laboratories. This non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is sold in the following forms: as a powder; spiked on blotter paper; mixed with or substituted for heroin; or as tablets that mimic other, less potent opioids. People can swallow, snort, or inject fentanyl, or they can put blotter paper in their mouths so that fentanyl is absorbed through the mucous membrane.
Like heroin, morphine, and other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain’s reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation. Fentanyl’s effects resemble those of heroin and include euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression and arrest, unconsciousness, coma, and death.
Opioid receptors are also found in the areas of the brain that control breathing rate. High doses of opioids, especially potent opioids such as fentanyl, can cause breathing to stop completely, which can lead to death. The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains fentanyl. Fentanyl sold on the street can be mixed with heroin or cocaine, which markedly amplifies its potency and potential dangers.
To prevent death from overdose, people who are at risk for heroin or other forms of opioid overdose should have access to naloxone and a syringe so that it can be injected into a muscle in the case of overdose. Their family members and significant others should also be trained to know the warning signs of overdose and how to administer the naloxone in an emergency. Doctors can prescribe naloxone for anyone using opioids and who may be at risk for overdose.
Another important aspect of addressing this public health problem is getting people off heroin and other opioid addictions through medication-assisted treatment. People who are physically dependent on abused opioids—be they prescription pain medications or heroin—can be successfully treated. Every person is different and treatments should be matched to individual needs – but regardless of the route, the road to recovery is real. These medications in combination with other psychosocial and supportive therapies can help people get control over their addiction and go on to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
(Sources: NIDA & SAMHSA)