The United States Department of Health and Human Services announced an opioid crisis in 2017. Opioid overdose deaths have continued to rise since then hitting almost seventy thousand deaths in 2020. The driving force of this has been the overprescription of opioids and the aggressive marketing of them by pharmaceutical companies. Profit has been put ahead of the safety and health of the public.
Prescription opioid drugs such as fentanyl are used for pain relief but are also sold illegally on the street. Fentanyl is sold under its own name but pills are also under the guise that they are other drugs. This can be very dangerous as fentanyl is extremely potent and just a small amount can have adverse effects. In 2021, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were involved in the most drug overdoses of any drug in the US, at 71,238.
Opioid analgesics, particularly fentanyl, are highly addictive. If you or a loved one has a fentanyl addiction, seeking help from a treatment facility could change and even save your life. Read on to learn more about fentanyl addiction and treatment.
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What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a potent opioid drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant. It works by activating the body's opioid receptors, causing analgesia. It also increases dopamine activity in the reward pathways of the brain causing exhilaration and relaxation.
Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug. This means that it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and can lead to psychological and physical dependence. However, unlike Schedule I drugs, it is considered to have a medical use. Since fentanyl is a very potent opioid it is used to treat severe pain such as that experienced by cancer patients.
It is also used to treat breakthrough pain which is experienced in people who already have chronic pain. For example, breakthrough cancer pain is where you experience more severe pain typically in the same part of your body that you usually feel pain. Fentanyl can be administered by injection, nasal spray, skin patch, or by absorption through the cheek as a lozenge or tablet.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. While natural opioids are extracted from the seeds of particular opium poppies, synthetic opioids have the same action in the brain and produce similar effects, however, they are produced in a lab. Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1950 and was approved for medical use in the US in 1968.
It is now on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines and has been the most widely used synthetic opioid since 2017. In 2019 there were more than one million prescriptions of fentanyl in the US.
Fentanyl is also manufactured illicitly. It can be sold as fentanyl but also under the pretense of being other drugs such as OxyContin, Xanax, and Adderall. It is tempting for drug dealers to sell more fentanyl than other drugs as a small amount goes a long way so it is more profitable.
Fentanyl Abuse and Addiction
Fentanyl abuse can either be abusing a fentanyl prescription or using illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Prescription drug abuse includes:
- Taking fentanyl more frequently than stated on your prescription form
- Taking a larger dose than prescribed
- Taking someone else's prescription
- Taking in a different way than prescribed
Fentanyl has a strong potential for abuse. This is partly due to its potency as fentanyl is about one hundred times more potent than morphine and about fifty times more potent than heroin. It causes rapid and intense feelings of euphoria which make people seek that high again and again. It is also a short-acting drug, with effects typically lasting for less than two hours. This means that you need to take it relatively frequently to maintain the high.
This can create a dangerous cycle, the more you take fentanyl the more your tolerance grows so that you need larger doses to feel the same effects. The more frequently and heavily you use, the more adverse effects you experience, and the more likely you are to develop dependence and addiction.
Dependence on fentanyl can be both physical and psychological. This is where your body and brain feel they need the drug to feel normal and when you stop taking it you experience withdrawal symptoms which can be very unpleasant and even fatal. Addiction is usually close behind.
Fentanyl addiction is a brain disease that is characterized by compulsively seeking out and taking fentanyl. While it is sometimes treated as a choice and a moral failing, this is not the case. Quitting when you have developed an addiction takes a lot more than willpower and should be treated with the same empathy and attention as any other disease.
Risk Factors for Addiction
There are risk factors for addiction that can make you more likely to develop an addiction. So, while one person will be able to take fentanyl a couple of times and not feel the need to take it again, someone else could become addicted to it after even a single use. Risk factors include:
- Genetics - up to half of your risk of developing an addiction is thought to be down to genetics
- Environmental factors - exposure to drugs in childhood or early adulthood increases your chances of developing an addiction
- Childhood neglect and other forms of childhood abuse increase your risk of developing an addiction
- Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety increase your risk of developing an addiction. This also links to childhood neglect and other abuse since this increases your risk of developing a mental health problem
Symptoms of Fentanyl Use and Addiction
If you suspect that a loved one is using fentanyl it is useful to know what signs to look out for. Fentanyl use can quickly spiral out of control so catching it early makes stopping easier. It is also helpful to know the signs of fentanyl addiction if you do not catch the warning signs before. This could help you or a loved one recognize the extent of your fentanyl addiction.
While signs of fentanyl use can be both physical and psychological, the easiest way to detect if someone has an addiction is through behavioral signs. It is worth noting that other opioids and depressants will cause similar physical and psychological symptoms and other addictions will share many behavioral symptoms, even addictions that are not to substances such as shopping, gambling, and sex addictions.
Physical Symptoms of Fentanyl Use
- Constricted pupils
- Drowsiness and insomnia
- Decreased heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Poor coordination
Psychological Symptoms of Fentanyl Use
- Attention and concentration difficulties
- Impaired memory and judgment
- Suicidal ideation
More intense adverse effects include respiratory depression, serotonin syndrome, low blood pressure, hallucinations, and opioid use disorders.
Behavioral Symptoms of Fentanyl Addiction
- Social withdrawal
- Using fentanyl despite negative effects such as loss of relationships and physical and mental health problems
- Poor performance at school or work
- Lack of interest in things that were once important
- Going to multiple doctors for prescriptions, known as doctor shopping
An overdose is when you take an excessive and dangerous dose of a drug. The amount it takes to overdose depends on factors such as weight, gender, and how long and heavily you have been taking. As little as 2 mg of fentanyl can result in an overdose.
Some people will know that they are taking fentanyl and will either intentionally or accidentally take too much. However, others will take fentanyl accidentally, thinking they have bought a different drug. In 2021, The Drug Enforcement Administration reported that four out of ten pills seized that contained fentanyl contained at least 2 mg.
Pills that contain a mixture of drugs increase your risk of overdosing. For example, mixing fentanyl with other drugs such as other opioids can lead to such a slowing down of the nervous system that some functions such as your respiratory or cardiovascular system stop functioning properly. Mixing fentanyl with stimulants is also dangerous as it can lead to unpredictable effects.
You are also at greater risk of overdosing if you relapse after quitting fentanyl. When you were taking it, your tolerance would have been high so that you could take more fentanyl without overdosing. When you detox your tolerance reduces so you need to be very careful that you do not take the amount you used to if you relapse.
Symptoms of Fentanyl Overdose
- Bluish lips and fingertips/nails
- Severe respiratory depression or stopping breathing altogether
- Slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness
- Cold and clammy skin
If you see someone experiencing an overdose you should call 911 immediately. You should put them in the recovery position until medical help arrives as this will prevent them from choking if they vomit. The sooner someone gets help the better their chances. Naloxone is a drug that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, so access to this can be lifesaving.
If you have developed a dependence on fentanyl you will experience opioid withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. The severity and length of these symptoms will vary depending on your personal physical and mental health as well as how long and heavily you have been using fentanyl. The following are common withdrawal symptoms that you may experience after drug abuse.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle aches
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
- Dysphoric mood
Getting help for a substance use disorder can be extremely difficult. There is a lot of stigma which surrounds substance use and addiction treatment. As mentioned, many people believe that substance use disorders are a choice or a moral failing. This makes it difficult to accept that you may have a problem and to trust that those who claim to want to help you have your best interests at heart. However, if you are considering addiction treatment, there are many options available and it is possible to find the treatment that suits your needs.
Contact Us Today
At Cornerstone, we understand that recovering from addiction is different for everyone. We focus on building a strong foundation for lasting recovery by building an addiction treatment program tailored to your needs. Only by understanding your individual story and what led you to addiction, can treatment work. Even after detoxing, it is vital to work on understanding why you took drugs and what your relapse triggers are so that you can heal the deeper reasons for your drug use.
At Cornerstone, we have a variety of treatment options including:
- Medically supervised detox
- Relapse prevention
- Individual and group therapy
- Educational seminars
- 12-step program support groups
Find out more about our treatment options by visiting our website or calling us on 800-233-9999. We offer a free consultation and insurance verification service so if you would like to talk about whether we are the right service for you, please get in touch.