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The 101 of Fentanyl & The Opioid Epidemic

July 7th, 2020

In the right communities (medical, drug-using, or otherwise), the drug known as fentanyl has become somewhat infamous as of recently. Even those who don’t have a reason to know probably heard about it on the news occasionally. For those who aren’t or are only a little aware of what fentanyl is, this blog is for you. 

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid developed in the early ’60s to serve as an intravenous pain reliever and anesthetic. If you’re not familiar with fentanyl, you likely are with Morphine, another popular pain reliever used in hospitals. The most notable difference that separates the two is that fentanyl can be anywhere from 50 to 100 times stronger than Morphine. Throughout the years, fentanyl has taken on many different forms: intravenous injection, patches, tablets, and even lollipops. 

Typically, fentanyl is only used for patients experiencing extreme or chronic pains, primarily those with cancer. It’s not meant for most cases in the hospital, as it is both very easy to overdose on and highly addictive. Any amount higher than what a doctor recommends to a patient can become quickly habit-forming. On top of a slew of side effects of consumption, fentanyl cannot be taken alongside many other substances. Because of this fact, fentanyl is mostly used on an “as needed” basis. Like most widely used prescription painkillers, fentanyl with time eventually made its way into the recreational drug community.

Recreational Use and The Opioid Epidemic

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies pursued the heightened sale of opioid products to patients, aggressively increasing marketing and ad spend and pushing for the medical community to prescribe them more often to patients. Large pharmaceutical organizations assured both medical doctors and patients that addiction was not likely to occur. Following this push for increased use of opioids, a dramatic rise in recreational use came soon after. 

From 1999 to 2018, death by drug overdose has increased fourfold. Some experts mark this drug crisis in waves, with the third wave in 2013 marking the rise of use in fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Because dosage amounts can be very sensitive (and note: the dosage amount is VERY small), the threshold of overdose is easy to cross. This is one reason fentanyl has garnered a lot of attention on the news: recreational users are frequently becoming addicted and dying from taking even a little too much of the drug at once. 

Fentanyl is not being exclusively consumed on its own, however. Many high-level drug dealers and producers mix fentanyl with other drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and MDMA. The most likely cause for mixing is because fentanyl production is cheap and produces a very quick and easy high, making even the cheapest of drugs an intense experience. The addition of fentanyl is often not disclosed to buyers, meaning thousands of people become addicted to another painkiller without even knowing it. Mixing is the second big reason why fentanyl has taken the forefront of the opioid epidemic in America. 

What Fentanyl and Overdose Does to the Brain

Fentanyl and other opioids make contact with specific receptors in your brain. These receptors are found in the same place in the brain that regulates emotion and the sensation of pain. When this part of the brain is stimulated, you experience intense euphoria, muscle relaxation, sedation, and drastic changes in emotion (typically happiness). 

After each use, the brain adapts to the drug’s use and it begins to desensitize with every dosage. As your brain adjusts further, more fentanyl is required to get the ideal high. The “normal” brain state needed in order to feel contentedness has now been set much higher as continual abuse occurs. This vicious cycle repeats and pushes addicts further into addiction. It becomes much more than just a want, but a reliance.

When we begin to approach overdose levels of opioid consumption, breathing begins to slow down to dangerous levels as the brain becomes overwhelmed. As oxygen intake slows down, the mind and inner organs can’t function properly and stop working altogether. Even if you come out of the overdose alive, your organs can suffer permanent damage, most often the frontal lobe of the brain. Damage to the frontal lobe can result in memory loss, headaches, mood swings, and problems with essential cognitive functions such as problem-solving. Repeated overdose that doesn’t result in death can actively degrade your brain.

The Future of Fentanyl

Cases of overdose by fentanyl are continuing to rise in America and likely will continue to for a long while. Solutions and antidotes for overdoses such as Naloxone are on the rise, but that makes the drug no less deadly. 

Depending on the state you live in, you may be qualified to take a short training course on the administration of Naloxone and be a carrier of the cure yourself. Many EMS teams are equipped with it now, but even a few minutes saved time can mean life and death. If you or somebody you know is a frequent user of heroin, methamphetamines, or similar opiates, get licensed and equipped with Naloxone.

Naloxone is fantastic, but it is NOT a replacement for treatment for someone who is addicted. If you or somebody else you know is addicted to opioids, seek professional help quickly. Opioids can be incredibly dangerous and should not be abused. There are treatment programs, testing, and medical options available to those who are suffering. Get help as soon as possible before it consumes yours or somebody else’s life.