There has been a huge rise in the use of prescription drugs, including the synthetic opioid fentanyl, over recent years – which has many worried about the dangers of Fentanyl.
The abuse of these drugs has been described as an ‘epidemic’ in the US, and analysis of the most recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that there were more than 70,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone in 2021. Fentanyl was the main drug involved in these overdose deaths, which have risen steeply since 2015.
While fentanyl use is not as prevalent in the UK, it is on the rise, becoming a growing problem. The drug may be made, distributed and sold illegally and is often used recreationally. Prescribed drugs can also be misused and can still be dangerous.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a type of synthetic opioid. This means it was designed and synthesised in a laboratory to target similar parts of the brain as natural opioids such as codeine and morphine. Natural opioids are derived from certain strains of the poppy plant. Synthetic opioids are made for their analgesic or pain-relieving effects, but they are frequently abused. Some synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are a lot stronger than codeine and morphine.
Like other opioids, fentanyl works by blocking pain signals between the brain and the rest of the body. It can also reduce the anxiety and stress caused by pain. In the UK, it is only legally available on prescription and comes in a number of forms, including patches, lozenges, tablets, a nasal spray or injections (usually only available in hospitals). It is increasingly available on the black market as a recreational drug, however, and can also be dangerous even if misused after being properly prescribed.
Potency and Dangers of Fentanyl Use
The potency or strength of fentanyl is what makes it so dangerous. Fentanyl is 50-100 times stronger than morphine, which is itself a strong painkiller.
According to a National Crime Agency report, fentanyl first started to emerge in the UK’s illegal street drug market in late 2016. One of the main risks is that fentanyl is often used to cut other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy). Users might not even be aware that they are taking fentanyl but may be at risk of overdose due to the drug’s strength.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which provides national guidance and advice on medicines and healthcare, notes that there have been cases of serious harm, including fatalities, reported with the use of even properly prescribed fentanyl patches.
Fentanyl and other opioids can also be extremely addictive. NICE added: “Prolonged use of opioid analgesics may lead to drug dependence and addiction, even at therapeutic doses. There is an increased risk in individuals with current or history of substance use disorder or mental health disorders.”
Like all drugs, fentanyl can cause side effects even when prescribed and used as directed. The NHS lists the following common side effects of fentanyl:
- Feeling or being sick (nausea or vomiting)
- Stomach pain
- Feeling sleepy or tired
- Feeling dizzy or a sensation of spinning (vertigo)
- Itching or skin rashes
Less common, more serious effects of fentanyl can include muscle stiffness and low blood pressure. In rare cases, it is also possible to have a serious allergic reaction (known as anaphylaxis) to fentanyl.
Using fentanyl recreationally can be a lot more dangerous. As with other opioids, fentanyl can slow your breathing – sometimes to dangerous levels. This can be particularly risky if mixed with other depressants such as heroin or alcohol.
While fentanyl can cause feelings of euphoria, it can also lead to risky behaviour and cause various unpleasant symptoms. These could include:
Hallucinations and visual disturbances
- Respiratory distress
- Muscle rigidity
- Unconsciousness or sedation
The Warning Signs of Fentanyl Overdose
Fentanyl overdoses are relatively common because of the drug’s strength and also due to the fact that people may be using it without knowing when it is used to cut other drugs.
The US sees more than 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and the CDC says that spotting the symptoms of fentanyl overdose early could save lives.
Fentanyl poisoning symptoms to look out for include:
- Small, constricted “pinpoint pupils”
- Falling asleep or losing consciousness
- Slow, weak, or no breathing
- Choking or gurgling sounds
- Limp body
- Cold and/or clammy skin
- Discoloured skin (especially on lips and nails)
The CDC says doing the following can help:
- Call the emergency services
- Try to keep them awake and make sure they’re breathing
- Put them on their side to prevent choking
- Stay with them until emergency services arrive
The ‘anti-overdose’ drug naloxone can also help, but it can only be obtained via prescription or through drug services in the UK.
Seeking Help for Fentanyl Addiction
Fentanyl effects can include feelings of happiness, euphoria and extreme relaxation, which are some of the reasons why people seek the drug out. This can lead to repeated use that can easily slide into addiction. As well as chasing the feelings (with diminishing returns), the repeated use of any opioid can lead to increasing tolerance to the drug, as well as a dependency on it. This means that if you do try to stop using the drug, you may experience very unpleasant and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
If an addiction develops, it can be extremely difficult to break free from without the right help and treatment. Managed detoxification can help you to get the drugs out of your system and overcome any withdrawal symptoms safely, but a full treatment programme will also address the psychological aspects of addiction and the root causes of your substance abuse.
There are a number of options available, including support groups and local drug and alcohol services. The most effective way of treating serious addiction problems is a holistic rehab treatment programme. If you have a problem with fentanyl or any other substance, contact us today to find out how we can help.
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