Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Skyrocket by 540%

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is killing thousands of Americans, and the number of these overdoses are rising every day. Of the 64,000 drug overdose fatalities in 2016, 20,000 of them were due to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues—a number that reflects a 540% increase in only three years. Superstar musician Prince was one of 2016’s fentanyl tragedies, dying at age 57 of an accidental overdose. Many opiate-dependent individuals turn to fentanyl because it is incredibly potent—20 to 40 times more powerful than heroin—and it takes effect almost immediately. But fentanyl is also killing people who don’t realize what they’re taking, thanks to counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, and illicit drugs laced with fentanyl.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller that was introduced in the 1960s as an IV anesthetic.

Although it is similar to morphine, it is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is still used to manage surgical pain today, as well as to manage severe cancer pain, often in hospice situations. Legal forms of the drug come in lozenges, transdermal patches, or liquid injections.

Illegally produced and distributed forms of fentanyl and its even more potent analogues, like carfentanil, are found in powder form, on spiked blotter paper, mixed into heroin, cocaine, or other drugs; and in counterfeit versions of prescription opioids like oxycodone and anti-anxiety medications like Valium. This is why fentanyl overdoses are not just killing people who seek out the drug. People who are fooled into believing that they’re taking less powerful and less dangerous drugs are at risk, as are first responders like police officers and EMTs, and anyone who lives with or regularly interacts with a person who is addicted to opioids. This is due to the potency of synthetic opioids, and the fact that they are frequently found in forms that can be absorbed through the skin. Merely touching trace amounts of a drug as potent as carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, is fatal to anyone without an incredibly high opioid tolerance.

Most instances of fentanyl-related fatalities are linked to illegally manufactured fentanyl. Because fentanyl is much cheaper than heroin—$3,500 per kilogram instead of $65,000 per kilogram—mixing fentanyl with

heroin or cocaine to make a combination product, or creating entirely counterfeit versions of prescription pills, are extremely common ways for dealers to try and make a larger profit from their customers. Some of these counterfeit pills are so realistic that even experts have trouble distinguishing the real from the fake without testing the pills’ chemical makeup. Overseas distributors and local dealers mix the fentanyl powder with other substances then press them into pills designed to pass for popular prescription drugs of abuse, such as Percocet, Norco, and Xanax. Fentanyl is also being increasingly sold as MDMA or ecstasy. As a result, young people who’ve never done drugs before can decide that they’re going to try out a party drug just once, then end up dying from an overdose.

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The Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic

Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are too powerful to be handled by amateurs. Precise dosing takes specialized equipment and training that street-drug suppliers simply don’t have. As a result, there is no predicting whether a fentanyl-laced product will get a user high, or kill them almost instantly. Drug overdoses are the current leading cause of death for under-50 Americans, and with the prevalence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl increasing, this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Between 2012 and 2014, fentanyl-related fatalities more than doubled, and then between 2015 and 2016 fentanyl-related fatalities more than doubled again, contributing an opioid epidemic that is killing more people than the HIV epidemic did at its peak.

The risk of coma, brain damage, and death is astronomically higher thanks to fentanyl and fentanyl analogues for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no control over the contents, purity, or potency of illicitly-purchased drugs. Even counterfeit pills sold together in the same container can vary in potency from pill to pill, with one producing a high similar to what is expected from the authentic drug, and the next containing a fatal dose. Users have no way of knowing about these variations, or that they are even taking fentanyl at all. If they have regularly taken a certain prescription medication, they may feel confident in taking a counterfeit that looks exactly like the pills they used to get from their local pharmacy, while actually having no idea what they’re getting into.

Efforts are being made to reduce the death toll by having the Drug Enforcement Administration classify fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs instead of Schedule II. Schedule II drugs are substances that are controlled because they have a high risk for abuse, dependence, and addiction, while Schedule I drugs are illegal because they are classified as having no accepted medical use in the United States. A number of incredibly deadly fentanyl analogues were created by overseas manufacturers wanting to profit from the demand for fentanyl while also seeking to avoid U.S. prosecution. By changing the molecular structure of fentanyl, these manufactures created variants that cannot strictly be classified as fentanyl, but cause far more deaths than medical fentanyl. By classifying all of these variants as Schedule I drugs, the DEA would be able to prosecute anyone who manufactures, imports, distributes, or possesses them.

The hope is that by changing this classification, the DEA will be able to reduce how much of these deadly substances are found on our streets—and in our emergency rooms.

Effects of Fentanyl Abuse and Fentanyl Overdose

Opiate abuse has caused widespread death and destruction all across the United States. Not only does it impact the user, but everyone who regularly interacts with that user on a personal or professional basis. It can damage relationships, work productivity, and the wellbeing of families and children. It also has a number of very dangerous health risks.

Considering opiate abuse in general is incredibly dangerous, it makes sense that fentanyl abuse would be even more so. In addition to the in the moment risk of fentanyl overdose every time you take fentanyl or one of its analogues, there are dangerous long-term effects of fentanyl abuse, such as:

fentanyl overdose

20,000 Americans died from fentanyl overdoses in 2016.

  • Lack of motivation
  • Social withdrawal
  • Paranoia
  • Delusions
  • Personality changes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Severe gastrointestinal issues, such as bowel obstruction and perforation
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory distress
  • Coma
  • Death

Fentanyl abuse—or the accidental ingestion of fentanyl—can easily lead to fentanyl overdose. If you or someone you know shows any of the following signs of fentanyl overdose, call 911 for immediate medical assistance.

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Choking sounds or snoring noises
  • Very pale face
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Difficulty talking or walking
  • Slowed or irregular breathing
  • Slowed or erratic heartbeat
  • No heartbeat
  • Extreme drowsiness or fatigue with frequent nodding off
  • Blue tinge to the skin, usually starting with the lips and fingertips
  • Loss of consciousness/ unresponsiveness
  • Coma

The most dangerous parts of a fentanyl overdose are the many risks related to reduced oxygen intake and lack of oxygen. Depressed respiration can cause damage to internal organs, brain damage, coma, and death.

Detox can help you avoid a fatal fentanyl overdose. Get the treatment you need today!

Treatment is Necessary to Overcome Fentanyl Use Disorder

Professional detox and treatment is needed to overcome any addiction to opioids, but it is especially important in fentanyl use disorder, primarily due to the severity of the addiction. Anyone who regularly uses a synthetic opioid like fentanyl and survives must have a very high tolerance to opioid drugs, and a very strong physical dependency on opioids. For this reason, fentanyl withdrawal is likely to be especially severe, putting the individual at risk of fatal heart problems and seizures. Therefore, it is always advisable to seek an inpatient medical detox to safeguard your health through fentanyl withdrawal.

Fentanyl detox can be achieved by slowly tapering off the drug until you are no longer taking it, a process that can take weeks or months, or by receiving a medical detox using medications such as buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone. Either way, you need a doctor’s supervision throughout the process. A medical detox usually takes around five days, but it is usually advisable for the patient to continue on with medication maintenance afterwards, to continue to control remaining withdrawal symptoms.

What are the symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal? They can include:

  • Intense drug cravings
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Hostility and agitation
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Confusion
  • and in severe cases—seizures and cardiac arrhythmias

Another risk of fentanyl withdrawal (and another reason that inpatient detox is your best option) is the reduced tolerance that results from detoxing. Individuals who can’t handle untreated fentanyl withdrawal symptoms may turn to using again, only to suffer a fatal overdose because their bodies can no longer handle their usual dosage.

After Fentanyl Withdrawal

After you’ve completed detox treatment, most of your fentanyl withdrawal symptoms will have passed, or will be controlled by addiction treatment medications, although some symptoms, such as insomnia, depression, or anxiety can continue, or come and go, for many months after quitting. Professional addiction treatment will help you deal with these symptoms and continue to feel stronger and happier as your recovery continues.

After detox, you should receive counseling and engage with other therapeutic treatments and activities to help heal your addiction and prepare you for an independent life free from drug use. You will work closely with counselors to ferret out and address the core causes of your substance use disorder, and to heal any past traumas or current mental health issues that could derail your recovery if left untreated. Peer support groups and group therapy sessions will not only teach you valuable recovery lessons from others who are further along in their recovery journeys, you will eventually benefit from the experience of sharing knowledge and insights to help other individuals who aren’t as far along in recovery as yourself.

Your best chance at recovery success will come from Medication Assisted Treatment, which integrates counseling and behavioral therapies with medications to stabilize your brain chemistry and prevent fentanyl withdrawal symptoms and cravings. The same medications that can be used in short-term detox programs can be used for long-term maintenance that will prevent relapse and allow you to get the most benefit from other aspects of your treatment plan, such as counseling.

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It is important that your dosage be high enough to adequately block fentanyl withdrawal symptoms, but not high enough to cause side effects. It is also important that medication maintenance be continued for at least six months to a year (some patients benefit from even longer treatment durations) and that you and your treatment providers are very cautious about the decision to taper off your medication, and that you proceed very carefully when you do taper, with a well-thought out plan for dealing with the withdrawal process and potential relapse triggers.

Another key element of recovery success is making sure you have enough mental, social, behavioral, and emotional support to create a life without drugs. You need supportive friends and family, educational or work opportunities, access to child care, stable housing, places to turn to for additional treatment during certain life challenges, and so on. Most quality treatment facilities will help you with this, or refer you to community organizations who can. Recovery isn’t just about not using; it’s about enhancing your overall quality of life so that you don’t have to struggle against the urge to use all the time, and when you do get the urge, you have the tools you need to cope in a safe, healthy way.

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