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What Is Fentanyl and Why Are People Dying from It?

Posted by: Dr. Robin Barnett, February 28, 2018

Fentanyl first burst into many people’s awareness with passing of iconic pop star, Prince. When he died of an accidental overdose of the opioid pain medication in April, suddenly everyone wanted to know what the drug was. And then they heard that, in fact, people were dying from accidental fentanyl overdoses everywhere.

So what is fentanyl, and why is it killing people now more than ever?

A member of the opioid family, fentanyl is a synthetic, or manmade, version of the more naturally derived drug heroin (made from certain poppy plants). Most people know how potent and dangerous heroin is and would never dream of taking it. Yet fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin—and 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

And your doctor can prescribe it to you.

First developed in 1960 as a safer alternative pain medication to morphine for cardiac surgeries, fentanyl carried the risks of dangerously slowing breathing and heartrates even then, but when weighed against its benefits, was still deemed a strong option. However, over time, the powerful drug proved enticing to those seeking a better high than they even experienced with heroin. And addiction came quickly and intensely for many.

In 2014, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the explosion of abuse and addiction to opioid drugs affected between 26.4 and 36 million people worldwide, with approximately 2.1 million people in the U.S. abusing and addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers.

Given these facts, perhaps it was inevitable that fentanyl abuse would skyrocket thanks to its accessibility and incredibly high potency. And maybe it was just a matter of time before those in the business of profiting off of the increased demand started manipulating the drug to turn an even greater profit.

This activity is what led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a warning last October, stating that the dramatic spike in unintentional overdose fatalities was linked to illegally manufactured versions of fentanyl (that were often disguised as Oxycodone, Xanax, and Norco) and providing advice on how to detect these fentanyl overdose–related outbreaks. It also encouraged first-responders to receive training for administering the opioid antagonist drug naloxone and implement it into their response protocol.

Additionally, the CDC reported that fentanyl was often cut into heroin, significantly increasing its lethality. We continue to see this kind of stealthy incorporation of fentanyl into other street drugs and illicitly produced counterfeit pain medications, increasing its danger exponentially since its victims often never knew they were taking fentanyl in the first place.

Still, fentanyl remains popular with those who constantly seek the next-best high since its euphoric effects are said to dwarf even that of heroin. But this intense high all too often is followed by the devastating low from which its users never recover—overdose and death.

As with any prescription drug use, only take drugs that your doctor has prescribed for a legitimate medical issue, take them exactly as prescribed, keep them secure and away from children and teens, and talk to your doctor if you believe your use has become problematic.

Because with fentanyl, now more than ever, your life depends on it.

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Dr. Robin Barnett is a revered behavioral health expert, certified sex addiction expert and former CEO of Park Bench Group Counseling, a progressive addiction rehabilitation facility in Northfield, New Jersey, which she co-founded in 2006 and sold in 2014.

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