According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, the nation has seen a 200% increase in opioid overdose deaths since 2000. At the heart of many of these deaths is fentanyl, the most powerful opioid available. Doctors prescribe the drug to treat the extreme pain of conditions like cancer and other diseases.
However, the fentanyl found on the street that’s been cut (combined) with heroin is not what’s prescribed in hospitals by physicians. In many cases, the person buying heroin is unaware that their drugs contain fentanyl. By the time fentanyl is suspected in an overdose, it’s too late. Understanding the dangers of combining fentanyl and heroin and knowing the signs of drug overdose are important parts of preventing accidental death from these dangerous drugs.
In spite of reassurances from the pharmaceutical companies in the late 1990s that opioid pain relievers carried little to no risk of addiction, misuse of the medications began to rise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that by 2015, more than 33,000 Americans were dead as a result of opioid overdose. In that same year, more than 2 million people suffered from opioid-related substance use disorders, and 591,000 of those were addicted to heroin.
As heroin dependence grew, so did the desire for the more intense experience that heroin cut with fentanyl could provide. Unsuspecting drug users, thinking they were buying pure heroin, were now buying combination drugs that could prove deadly with just one use. Because fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled, even touching the drug can result in respiratory failure. Because heroin and fentanyl together make the side effects of use exponentially stronger, the risk of death is dramatically increased from this lethal combination.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is used to treat extreme pain after surgery and for those with chronic pain conditions who have developed tolerance to other opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists the following street names for fentanyl:
Street fentanyl is sold as a powder, on blotter paper, combined with heroin, or as tablets that look like other opioids. Fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors, changing how the body perceives pain and producing feelings of euphoria in the user. Part of what makes fentanyl so powerful is this reaction happens faster and with smaller doses than with other opioids. The drug’s high potency makes it especially dangerous when combined with heroin, which can quickly lead to accidental overdose and death.
Fentanyl is highly habit-forming. Over time, the brain develops dependence on the drug as it replaces the body’s natural response to pain. This means the person struggling with fentanyl abuse needs more of the drug to function “normally.” Because fentanyl dependence happens with such small doses of the drug, the risk of accidental overdose is significantly higher than with other opioids. Fentanyl also works on opioid receptors that control breathing. High doses of fentanyl can cause a person’s breathing to stop quickly, resulting in death. If you suspect a loved one is abusing fentanyl or other opioids, look for these signs of overdose:
If any of these symptoms are present, call 911 right away.
Treatment for opioid addiction usually begins with medically supervised detox. Medically supervised detox for opioids gives the body the chance to rid itself of drug toxins in a safe way. Medical personnel provide 24-hour monitoring and help with uncomfortable withdrawal side effects. After detox, the next step in the addiction treatment process is the diagnosis of any underlying mental illness. Often mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety go hand-in-hand with substance abuse. Getting simultaneous treatment for these co-occurring conditions dramatically increases the likelihood of treatment success. Once a diagnosis is reached, drug treatment can begin.
Treatment for opioid addiction includes individual counseling using cognitive behavioral therapy and other types of therapies designed to help the person struggling understand their addictive behaviors. Counseling also helps the person recognized relapse triggers and develop the coping skills needed to make healthy choices. Group therapy provides a judgment-free zone where those in recovery can learn from others dealing with the same struggles. Treatment also includes nutrition counseling, exercise, meditation, yoga, and spiritual counseling to treat the entire person: body, mind, and spirit.
Once treatment ends, getting involved in a support group and continuing with counseling are important parts of maintaining recovery. Healing from addiction is a one-day-at-a-time commitment to a lifelong journey.
Fentanyl is the most powerful opioid available. Doctors prescribe the drug to treat severe pain caused by cancer and other serious health conditions. But illegal street fentanyl is finding its way into the hands of heroin users at a deadly price. If you or your loved one struggle with opioid abuse and addiction, we are here for you.