Over the past few years, the opioid epidemic has made headlines around the world, due to a drastic increase in overdose deaths.
Some of these deaths can be attributed to the over-prescription of pain medication, while others are the result of a surge in heroin use.
As attempts are made to change the way opioids are prescribed, a growing number of users have turned to street drugs for relief. One of the most recent opioids to arrive on the street is fentanyl.
What Is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid with effects resembling those of heroin.
It’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and has legitimate medical applications, both as a painkiller and anesthetic.
Unfortunately, cheap fentanyl available on the street has helped create one of the worst drug problems in modern history.
This version of the drug is often cut into other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, making it particularly dangerous for users who may not know what they’re getting.
Legal fentanyl users who become addicted often seek out heroin when they’re unable to get enough of the drug.
Over time, drug cartels have arrived at the realization that they can produce their own version of fentanyl and blend it with heroin.
Traditionally, heroin is cut with substances that make it weaker.
In this case, the drug becomes much stronger and deadlier, as well as more addictive and profitable for the cartels.
Fentanyl binds to the brain’s opioid receptors, just like heroin or morphine.
However, it binds much faster, due to its higher potency. It then boosts dopamine levels, just like other opioids, inducing intense feelings of euphoria.
When prescribed, fentanyl is typically given to patients who are in extreme pain.
How is Fentanyl Used?
Today, there are numerous ways to take fentanyl.
It can be administered as an injection, adhesive patch, oral or nasal spray, lozenge, or lollipop.
For medical purposes, it’s typically given to patients in patches, injections, or lozenges. When used illegally, it’s typically injected, snorted, or swallowed.
Some abusers have been known to remove the gel from inside fentanyl patches and either ingest or inject it.
Others simply use discarded patches, since there’s always some fentanyl left in them after their recommended usage period has expired.
Effects of Fentanyl
The effects of fentanyl are very intense, which is why heroin users often choose to use it as a substitute.
Once endorphins are released, the user experiences intense euphoria.
However, repeated use causes changes to occur in the brain that results in a reduced ability to release endorphins on its own.
These changes are what cause a person to become addicted.
In addition to the euphoria, fentanyl users can experience a number of different side effects.
While they’re not usually dangerous, they can be uncomfortable and lead to more serious health problems.
Why Fentanyl is Dangerous
Note that when fentanyl is taken properly, as prescribed by a physician, it’s relatively safe to take.
The problems that do occur usually involve accidental overdoses, due to the drug’s potency.
Users often develop high tolerances to it relatively quickly, meaning that they will require more of it to get the same level of relief.
The result is that some patients deviate from the instructions on their prescriptions, leading to addiction or overdose.
Part of what makes fentanyl so dangerous is that it prevents pain signals from getting to the brain and spinal cord.
It binds so tightly to opioid receptors that even a small amount can trigger tremendous effects in the user’s body.
Once the brain becomes accustomed to an opiate’s presence, dopamine and other chemical messengers cease to behave in their normal manner, causing the body to rely on the drug for balance.
At this point, the user is likely to take more fentanyl to keep these symptoms at bay.
Doing so can put them at greater risk for an overdose, since they may lose control of their judgment pertaining to how much of the drug to take and how often.
Another problem with some users is that their breathing can slow down significantly.
This condition occurs because the receptors that control the breathing rate are located near the opioid receptors.
Thus, if an individual takes too much fentanyl, these receptors can also get triggered, potentially stopping their breathing.
A big part of the reason for the increase in fentanyl addiction is the availability of fentanyl on the streets.
Because it’s so cheap to produce, it’s often imported from countries like Mexico and China.
Once this form of the drug gets mixed into other street drugs, buyers will not know that they contain fentanyl.
Once it’s added to heroin, the result is a dramatically intensified high that users who don’t overdose right away can easily become addicted to.
A person addicted to fentanyl will continue using it, despite any problems it might cause in their life.
Misusing the drug eventually leads to untimely cravings and highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, which make it seem impossible to quit using the drug.
Fortunately, treatment is available for fentanyl addiction. It’s a very difficult process, but it is possible to break the drug’s grip with comprehensive treatment and dedication to a comprehensive program.
Despite fentanyl’s effectiveness in treating those with severe or chronic pain, it’s impossible to overlook how dangerous it can be under other circumstances.
As law enforcement agencies work to decrease the drug’s availability, healthcare workers are struggling to get help for those who are already addicted.
Attempting to solve the fentanyl problem may seem like a daunting task, but the alternative will only allow the current crisis to continue spinning out of control.