FAQ » Opiates/Prescription Drugs » Fentanyl

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is the generic name for a powerful pain-relieving opioid medication that acts quickly and is short-lasting. It is a strong opioid agonist that works on the brain’s opioid receptors. It’s used to treat breakthrough pain. It is also commonly used to reduce chronic pain, and as an anesthetic in combination with benzodiazepine medication.

Fentanyl Potency and Addiction

Fentanyl is a potent drug. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and 40 to 50 times more powerful than pure heroin. Fentanyl, like other opioids, is used and abused recreationally. Fatalities have been reported from improper use.

If someone takes more than the prescribed dose or takes it for prolonged periods of time, serious and life-threatening addiction may result. People abusing fentanyl have shown severe and sometimes fatal breathing problems. Individuals who already have a tolerance to narcotic pain medications are especially at risk to overdosing on fentanyl. Eating grapefruit products to slow the metabolism of fentanyl may result in a deadly overdose.

First responders should use caution when treating anyone who uses fentanyl patches. Accidental contact with a new or used patch containing fentanyl has known to have serious or fatal side effects in people, especially children. Caution should be used in storing and disposing of patches properly.

History of Fentanyl Use and Abuse

Illicit use of fentanyl was first observed in the 1970s in the healthcare community. Abuse of fentanyl is still seen in the United States today. Illegal manufacture of fentanyl exists currently.

Fentanyl produces the same effects as heroin, with one exception; fentanyl may be hundreds of times more potent. The drug is most commonly used by injection through a needle, but as seen with heroin, it may be smoked or snorted as well.

DEA Classification

Fentanyl is listed as a Schedule II drug on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s controlled substances list. Schedule II drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse, can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence and are considered dangerous.

Fentanyl Side Effects

Medical attention is needed when any of these side effects appear when taking fentanyl:

  • Blurry vision
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions, fainting, lightheadedness
  • Decreased urination
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fever, chills
  • Thirst, difficulty urinating
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Appetite loss
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Moodiness
  • Muscle pain
  • Cramps, nausea, vomiting
  • Nervousness
  • Numbness in extremities or mouth
  • Swelling in extremities
  • Mouth sores
  • Extreme fatigue

Fentanyl Overdose

The most serious symptom indicating an overdose of fentanyl is severely suppressed breathing. This is a life-threatening condition needing immediate medical attention. If left unattended, this could result in death.

Detoxing from Fentanyl

Withdrawal from fentanyl is usually the most serious in the first few days after an individual stops taking it. Withdrawal symptoms typically include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Hot flashes
  • Sleeplessness
  • Muscle aches
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Panting
  • Tremors

The Need for Professional Detox

Fentanyl withdrawal is a dangerous and painful experience for a person who has become dependent on the drug. The recommended course of treatment is for the individual to have a medically supervised detox to avoid or alleviate symptoms. Then, residential rehab offering specialized counseling and therapies, followed by an aftercare program, helps the recovering individual remain sober.