The opioid epidemic has sparked a lot of discussion on how we can monitor prescription drug abuse, but Americans are leaning towards illicit opioids, too. For instance, many find themselves transitioning from prescription opioids to heroin because of the ease of accessibility and affordability overall. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated that 72,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2017; and the biggest increase in deaths was due not to prescription opioids or to heroin, but to fentanyl – a deadly, synthetic drug.
Fentanyl: What is It and How it Works in the Brain
As the NIDA explains, fentanyl is an opioid analgesic (painkiller) that is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. In its prescription form, it’s known as Actiq, Duragesic and Sublimaze – but it’s street name often goes by Apache, China Girl, Dance Fever, Friend and more. When taken as prescribed, fentanyl is taken by injection, lozenges or through a patch. It’s often used for pain after surgery – but when misused, it has much more dangerous potential.
Fentanyl was created around 1960 and is inexpensively made in a lab. Because of this, cartels have capitalized on it – and have started creating their own as well as lacing it into other illicit drugs, such as cocaine. A 2018 article published by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been warning the public about the deadly effects of this drug; a DEA agent stated, “The public needs to be aware that it is not possible to tell if a product contains fentanyl. There is no test available at the drugstore or from your dealer. The only test is in a laboratory. Don’t let your loved ones find out the test results at the mortuary.”
Fentanyl doesn’t work any differently in the brain than other drugs would – it still triggers an influx of dopamine (feel-good chemicals in the brain), which leave the brain wanting more. The difference, however, is how quickly the drug’s chemicals bind to opioid receptors in the brain. Dr. Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at NYU told Forbes Magazine in 2018 that morphine circulates in the blood, and then binds to receptors. When heroin is taken, it binds more quickly – but “fentanyl is very rapid, and therefore very euphoric.”
With such a strong potency, this means that fentanyl would need to be taken at an extremely low dose in order to achieve a similar “high” – but because the amount is so little, many people aren’t aware of how crucial measuring is, and they take the drug anyways without assessing what they’re taking.
Fentanyl Deaths Are Rampant in the U.S.
Aside from binding to opioid receptors rapidly, fentanyl produces a number of side effects – such as nausea and vomiting, sedation, and respiratory depression (respiratory arrest is how most people die from this drug). The rising number of deaths have left many devastated. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that between 2013 and 2014, fentanyl submissions (drug products that tested positive for fentanyl) went up in Florida by 494% and increased by 526% in Ohio. Newly published figures from the CDC also report that overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased by 9%; for fentanyl, overdose deaths have increased by a shocking 45%.
There are currently 20 states that have significantly higher rates of fentanyl overdose deaths than the rest of the nation, including Florida, New Mexico, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, amongst others.
Doctors Richard Frank and Harold Pollack shared their perspectives on the rise of fentanyl submissions and deaths through the New England Journal of Medicine. They emphasized the concern of harm-reduction, naloxone treatment, public safety organizations and targeted treatment for abusing fentanyl, but the question remains – how can we reach these individuals in the quickest, most effective way possible?
Researchers, policymakers and community leaders alike are working together to find ways to combat this issue – because we can’t continue losing lives.
How Fentanyl is Affecting Our Nation
In 2018, a news reporter shared the story of finding out that her 21-year-old daughter died of a fatal fentanyl overdose. She told USA Today, “My world dropped out from under me. The rug was pulled out from under me. I don’t know how I coped.”
Angela Kennecke, Emily’s mother, covered the opioid epidemic in her line of work – but that reality didn’t really sink in until she discovered her daughter lost the fight to addiction.
People Magazine highlights a number of celebrities who’ve lost their lives to fentanyl, including: Mac Miller, Tommy Petty, and Prince. While we may not talk about fentanyl as often as prescription opioids in general, we need to educate our communities about what it is and just how dangerous it can be. Even other drugs taken from a dealer could contain traces of fentanyl, and, the amount in the drug could be enough to end someone’s life.
Seek Help Now
If you or a loved one has been struggling with drug addiction, seek the help you need before it’s too late. Your life matters – and there are people who can help you get through this.
Avalon Malibu is a world-renowned, California state-licensed mental health and substance abuse recovery center. If you are ready to seek treatment to develop the tools you need to overcome life’s obstacles and be on the road towards happiness, health, and well-being, call us today at 888-958-7511 for a consultation. It’s never too late, and there are people here ready to help you.