Nearly every day, there are new news reports about the drug Fentanyl and its misuse. The stories are tragic: Fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-45, many of whom weren’t known to have a substance use disorder.
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but 100 times stronger. Doctors prescribe Fentanyl and other opioids to treat severe pain, especially for cancer patients or after surgery. However, it can also be produced illegally and marketed on the street as heroin or another drug. Illegal Fentanyl has fueled an explosive increase in overdoses across the U.S. Between May 2020 and April 2021, there were more than 100,000 fatal drug overdoses in the U.S., with 64% of them related to Fentanyl.
What does Fentanyl do?
Fentanyl and other opiates work by attaching to certain parts of brain and nerve cells, decreasing a person’s feeling of pain and sometimes increasing the sense of pleasure. It can also cause drowsiness, confusion, constipation and addiction. An overdose of fentanyl can cause a person’s breathing and heart to slow or stop, causing death.
Why is Fentanyl so dangerous?
As mentioned above, Fentanyl is extremely powerful – that’s why doctors only use it in small doses for patients in extreme pain. The government tightly monitors the production and dosage of pharmaceutical Fentanyl and under these conditions patients can take the drug safely. But illegally manufactured Fentanyl isn’t subject to the same controls. Smugglers often bring it into the U.S. from Mexico or China; in other cases, it’s made by amateurs here. Because it is inexpensive, addictive, and so potent, drug dealers then use it to “cut” or replace some or all of a drug like heroin or oxycodone and sell it at a larger profit, or even misrepresent it as Adderall or Ecstasy. When people buy these drugs, they may not even know they’re getting Fentanyl.
What can be done?
Solving the Fentanyl crisis won’t happen overnight, and we all have a role to play.
- Know what you’re taking: The first and most important thing you can do is to understand that drugs on the street or online are often not what they appear to be.  Only get prescription drugs at a pharmacy using a prescription. Never buy medications online or borrow them from others.
- Consider Narcan: Narcan (Naloxone) is a drug that can reverse the effects of Fentanyl or other opiates by taking up the spaces on the nerve cells the drug uses. Because Narcan is most effective when used right away, if you or someone you know uses street drugs, consider having Narcan available in case of emergency. It is available from most pharmacies without a prescription and is easy to use.
- Governmental action: The federal government is working internally and with other nations to reduce the amount of fentanyl entering the country. In a new campaign, the Department of Homeland Security seized more than 900 pounds of Fentanyl in just one week.