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Fentanyl and Synthetic Opioid Overdose Deaths Doubled In 2016

fentanyl and heroin vials

Lethal dose of heroin compared to a lethal dose of fentanyl

Death by Fentanyl Overdose is on the Rise

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for pain management, has surpassed heroin as a leading cause of drug overdose deaths.  According to a CDC Report, the number of drug overdose deaths in the US increased by 21% last year.  Synthetic-opioid fatalities more than doubled during this period.

The National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) estimates that 64,070 people in the US  died of drug overdose last year.  An increase of 21% over the 52,898 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2015.  This is double the rate of death for firearm and motor vehicle related deaths.  In the US Fentanyl caused 20,100 deaths in 2016, a rise of 540% over the past 3 years.   The drug gained national notoriety when medical examiners concluded that musician Prince died from an accidental fentanyl overdose.

The researchers for the CDC wrote “The first wave of deaths began in 1999 and included deaths involving prescription opioids. It was followed by a second wave, beginning in 2010, and characterized by deaths involving heroin. A third wave started in 2013, with deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF). IMF is now being used in combination with heroin, counterfeit pills, and cocaine.” 

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.  It’s typically prescribed to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery.  In its prescription form, its known by such names as Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze.

How is Fentanyl Used?

When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl is often administered via injection, a patch, or in lozenge form. However, much of the  fentanyl that’s being associated with illicit use and overdose deaths is being produced in clandestine laboratories. This illegal, non-pharmaceutical drug is being found as a powder,  spiked on blotter paper; mixed with or substituted for heroin; or as tablets that look like other, less potent opioids. Most often the drug is snorted, swallowed or injected.

How Does Fentanyl Affect The Brain?

Fentanyl acts much like heroin or morphine by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions.  When opioid drugs bind to these receptors, they can drive up dopamine levels in the brain’s reward areas, producing a state of euphoria and relaxation.  The drug’s effects resemble those of heroin and include euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression and arrest, unconsciousness, coma, and death.

What Makes Fentanyl So Dangerous?

Opioid receptors are also found in the areas of the brain that control breathing.  Significant doses of opioids, especially potent opioids such as fentanyl, can cause breathing to stop completely.  Because the drug is so powerful and in street form the dose is often unknown, or the user thinks they are using a lower potency drug they are at a great risk of overdose or death.  Fentanyl sold on the street can be mixed with heroin or cocaine, which markedly amplifies its potency and potential dangers.

The medication naloxone is an opioid receptor antagonist that reverses opioid overdose and restores normal respiration.  Overdoses of fentanyl should be treated immediately with naloxone.

Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction

Treatment for and recovery from Fentanyl is similar to treating a heroin or other opioid or opiate addition.   The best course is to see a medical professional who specializes in addiction.  A medical detox is a possibility as well as in-patient treatment.  At the very least the treatment and recovery should be monitored and supervised by a medical specialist.  It should be noted that coming off of an opioid addiction poses serious health risks, going “cold turkey” like in the movies can be dangerous.

Formal treatment with support group participation is the ideal plan of action.  There are numerous free and confidential support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, and Opiates Anonymous to name a few.

If you are struggling with an opioid addiction reach out to a treatment center in your community.  Get help today.  And our National Addiction Hotline is here 24/7 to provide guidance and treatment options.  1-888-352-6072

Learn The Facts About Opioids and Opiates

and better understand opioid and opiate addicts in our “Heroin And Opioid Addiction In Their Own Words“.