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Why Is Fentanyl So Dangerous?

Opioid Crisis Concept: Closeup of an apothecary bottle on its side with a white powder from crushed pills spilling out.

In recent years, the word “fentanyl” has become synonymous with the opioid crisis, striking fear in communities across the globe. But what makes this drug so dangerous?

We want to demystify fentanyl, explaining its inherent dangers and why it has become a critical concern in public health.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever, a class of drugs known for their ability to alleviate severe pain. It was initially synthesized in the 1960s in the United States and is primarily used to treat patients with chronic pain, often in cases of severe cancer pain. The drug is also used in anesthesia as a component of intravenous (IV) sedative mixtures.

Fentanyl’s chemical structure enables it to act quickly and effectively on the central nervous system. It is designed to mimic the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins, by binding to opioid receptors in the brain. When these receptors are activated, they reduce the sensation of pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria, which contributes to its potential for misuse and addiction.

One of the critical aspects of fentanyl’s potency is its high lipid solubility. This enables the drug to absorb into the blood-brain barrier at a faster pace, leading to a quick onset of effects compared to other prescription opioids. This characteristic makes it extremely effective in managing acute pain, but it also increases the risk of overdose, as the effects are felt more quickly and intensely.

Fentanyl is available in several forms, including patches, tablets, and injectable formulations. The patches release the drug slowly over time and are designed for long-term pain relief in opioid-tolerant patients. However, the illicit manufacturing of fentanyl often results in other forms, such as powders or pills, which are more dangerous due to their unregulated content and potency.

The emergence of fentanyl in the illegal drug market has been a significant factor in the opioid epidemic. Its potency and the ease with which it can be synthesized make it a common additive in other illegal drugs, often unbeknownst to the user, thereby increasing the risk of accidental overdose.

Why is fentanyl more dangerous than other opioids?

Fentanyl is considered more dangerous than many other opioids due to several key factors:

Extreme Potency. Fentanyl is significantly more potent than most other opioids. It is estimated to be about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and about 50 times stronger than heroin.1 This extreme potency means that even a very small amount can be lethal, making it much easier to overdose on fentanyl compared to other opioids.

Rapid Onset of Effects. Fentanyl acts very quickly in the body due to its high lipid solubility, which allows it to cross the blood-brain barrier quickly. This leads to a faster onset of its effects, which can be particularly dangerous if an overdose occurs, as there is less time to intervene and provide treatment.

Respiratory Depression. Like other opioids, fentanyl depresses the central nervous system, which can lead to slowed or stopped breathing. However, because of its potency, the risk of respiratory depression is much higher with fentanyl, making it more likely to be fatal.

Illicit Manufacturing and Mixing. Fentanyl is often illicitly manufactured and used to lace other drugs, like heroin or cocaine. This unpredictability greatly increases the risk of overdose, as users may not be aware of the presence of fentanyl and its potent effects.

Difficulty in Dosing. In a medical setting, fentanyl must be dosed very precisely due to its potency. In the context of illicit use, where dosing is not controlled, the risk of accidental overdose increases significantly.

Increased Risk of Dependence and Addiction. Due to its potent effects on the brain’s reward system, fentanyl can be highly addictive. The intense euphoria it can produce may lead to a higher risk of misuse and addiction compared to other opioids.

Threat of Overdose. Drug overdoses on fentanyl happen often due to its extreme potency. Risks of overdose include respiratory depression, cardiovascular issues, unconsciousness, choking, and mental health effects.

Fentanyl overdoses can also be more difficult to reverse than other opioid overdoses. Higher or multiple doses of naloxone, a medication used to counteract overdoses, may be necessary to avoid overdose deaths.

Contamination Risk. The potency of fentanyl also poses a risk of accidental exposure and contamination. Even small amounts can be harmful, and they can be accidentally inhaled or absorbed through the skin with other illicit drugs, posing a risk not just to users but also to bystanders, first responders, and law enforcement personnel.

What makes fentanyl so addictive?

Handling Dangerous Fentanyl

Fentanyl is highly addictive due to its extreme potency and the way it interacts with the brain’s opioid receptors. As a powerful opioid, it creates a significant release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathways, leading to a sense of euphoria and relaxation.

This intense and rapid onset of pleasurable feelings can lead to a strong psychological desire to continue using the drug to recreate or maintain these sensations. The brain quickly adapts to the presence of fentanyl, leading to tolerance, where higher doses are required to achieve the same effects, and dependence, where the body requires the drug to function normally.

This cycle of tolerance and dependence significantly contributes to the addictive potential of fentanyl.

What are the signs of fentanyl addiction?

The signs of fentanyl addiction can be both behavioral and physical.

Behaviorally, individuals may show increased secrecy, withdrawal from social activities, changes in social groups, neglect of responsibilities, and risky behaviors to obtain the drug.

Physically, signs may include noticeable changes in sleep patterns, weight loss or gain, flu-like symptoms (especially during withdrawal), reduced attention to personal hygiene, and signs of injection drug use in some cases.

Additionally, one of the most telling signs is the continued use of fentanyl despite the awareness of its negative consequences, including health problems, strained relationships, or legal issues. Recognizing these signs is crucial for early intervention and treatment.

Understand the Risk of Fentanyl With Lumina Recovery

Fentanyl’s extreme potency and rapid onset of effects make it a particularly dangerous substance, with a high potential for overdose and death. Understanding the dangers of fentanyl is vital to combat the opioid crisis.

Lumina Recovery offers opioid and fentanyl addiction services as well as medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to help those struggling with addiction.

Reach out to our team of professionals today to learn more about your options and resources for treating opioid addiction.

Sources:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/index.html

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