The opioid epidemic continues to dominate headlines nationally, and unfortunately, it is becoming widespread globally. While prescription opioids and heroin have saturated the streets for many years, a newer drug, known as fentanyl, was introduced and is causing unprecedented harm. This synthetic opioid has increased the number of overdose deaths dramatically in the past few years.
The most recent data the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has released shows that 128 people die across the United States each day after overdosing on opioids. It has become a serious national crisis affecting our public health and economic welfare, even for those who don’t consume the drugs.
When the U.S. government clamped down on prescription opioids, many users turned to heroin to fulfill their needs. Unfortunately, an even cheaper synthetic opioid was introduced to the market. In Mexico, drug cartels order the precursor from China and mix the fentanyl in secret, illegal labs before shipping it into the United States. The result? A cheaper drug that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.
Due to the low cost of fentanyl, it’s challenging to find “pure heroin” or prescription medications anymore. Many drugs today are sold as oxycodone or heroin on the street but contain fentanyl. For unsuspecting users, this can result in immediate overdose or death. For those who regularly use the drug, fentanyl addiction is a severe disease that requires help to overcome.
Despite its reputation, fentanyl is a drug containing unique medicinal properties that can be used to treat severe pain under medical supervision. It’s used because it’s fast-acting and is commonly used in epidurals when a woman goes into labor.
Due to the unpredictability of labor, fentanyl is an ideal choice because it works within 10 minutes. The drug is unique compared to other opioids because it has a high transdermal bioavailability, meaning it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin.
Fentanyl works similarly to other opioid drugs and is considered a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Our bodies contain opioid receptors all over, and the receptors are designed to bind with naturally occurring opioids known as endorphins. These are released to negate the pain you experience. Opioids are considerably more potent and cause pain relief, sedation, and euphoria.
When a doctor administers the medication, the dosage must be considered carefully due to its potency. As mentioned above, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin. When the drug finds its way on the street, unsuspecting users may not account for its strength, and it could lead to an immediate overdose or death. Those who develop a fentanyl addiction will have a challenging time transitioning into sobriety without help due to severe withdrawal symptoms.
The effects of fentanyl are consistent with what you’ll find from other opioids, but fentanyl is less sought out than other drugs like heroin or pain medications. Unfortunately, fentanyl is extremely common in other drugs or pressed into counterfeit prescription opioid tablets.
Fentanyl overdose is the greatest threat you’ll encounter by using the drug without medical supervision. Still, if you use a small enough dose to achieve intoxication, it’ll be a potent and euphoric high that can quickly lead to fentanyl addiction.
If there’s a silver lining, addiction produces warning signs that unsuspecting individuals will notice. It will start with becoming tolerant of fentanyl, followed by dependence. Tolerance results from your body adjusting to a drug’s effects and counteracting it by balancing brain chemistry.
As tolerance grows, you’ll begin developing a dependence on fentanyl. At this point, if you reduce your dose or stop altogether, you could experience cravings or extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Since natural opioid receptors occur all over the body, fentanyl withdrawal symptoms will be experienced throughout your body. You will notice symptoms similar to that of the flu, and others that include:
Addiction can develop when positive feelings from drug use affect the reward center in your brain. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug use despite adverse consequences. If you continue using a drug despite legal trouble or a near-fatal overdose, you’ve likely developed a fentanyl addiction.
Due to the sheer potency of fentanyl and the severity of the addiction, individuals who seek treatment are advised to complete medical detox to ease their withdrawal symptoms. While opioid withdrawal isn’t considered life-threatening, symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting could lead to dehydration, which could become fatal.
Attending a detox program in the earliest stages of treatment will save you the trouble of worrying and provide you with medications to ease your discomfort during withdrawals. Detox is also the right choice if you have pressing medical needs.
With the help of clinicians, you will find a level of care appropriate for your specific needs. Once all fentanyl traces have left your body, and you’re deemed medically stable, you’ll have devised a treatment plan that plans your next steps. This could mean attending a residential treatment center, where you’ll live on-site 24 hours a day for an extended period, or it could result in an outpatient setting, which allows for more freedom while you work toward your goals.
No matter the path that medical professionals can help you decide, your addiction treatment process will consist of behavioral therapies, including family therapy, group therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). All of these combined will help you identify triggers, positively cope with stress, and develop a relapse prevention strategy. Your path forward will be challenging, but the help around you and your willingness for a better life will propel you into the success you never thought possible.
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Fentanyl is considered among the most dangerous recreational drugs to hit the streets due to its potency. A small amount of the drug can cause a fatal overdose, and it’s easily mixed into heroin or other drugs without detection. In most cases, even those with a high opioid tolerance, 2 mg to 3 mg (milligrams) is enough to cause death—that’s the weight of a snowflake.
The potency of fentanyl, however, is what attracts drug dealers because smaller amounts can be shipped without being traced by authority figures. It also allows dealers to add the drug to cut heroin to stretch profits without losing potency. Fentanyl addiction is a severe problem, and if you’re struggling with fentanyl use, it’s time to consider getting the help you need.
NIDA (September 2020) Types of Treatment Programs. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs
NIDA (September 2020) Opioid Overdose Crisis. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis
NIDA (September 2020) Fentanyl. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/fentanyl
MedlinePlus (September 2020) Opiate and opioid withdrawal. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000949.htm
APA (September 2020) What is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction