Perhaps you or a loved one has been prescribed fentanyl for treating or managing pain. But what are the dangers of combining your prescribed painkillers and some alcohol?
What are Fentanyl and alcohol?
To better understand the dangers of combining fentanyl and alcohol, it is best to first understand their individual properties and how they affect the mind and body.
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The alcohol that we drink in beverages contains ethanol. It is produced by the fermentation of fruits, grains, or other sugars, and is a depressant. This means that while it may seem stimulating, making a person feel euphoric or more sociable initially, it slows down vital functions and can cause a depressant effect shortly after. It can cause a person to lose judgment and coordination, have slurry speech, disturbed perceptions, and have the inability to react quickly.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and interacts with opioid receptors in the brain to provide pain relief, pleasure, or relaxation. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is used to manage chronic or severe pain. When used as prescribed and for personal use, fentanyl can be a helpful medication, and can greatly help relieve severe pain following surgery or with cancer patients.
Illicit fentanyl is sold on the illegal drug market, often as pills that are made to look like prescription medication or as nasal sprays or powders. Illicit fentanyl is often mixed with other illicit drugs, most commonly heroin, to increase its potency.
The manufacturing of illegal fentanyl is not overseen, meaning there is no way to control the quality or the purity of the substance. Many drugs are filled with illegal fentanyl but sold under other brand names, and the uncertain amount and strength of it have been the leading cause of many accidental deaths.
Fentanyl affects people according to their health, weight, and size, and whether they are taking other drugs at the same time. The strength of the drug also determines how someone will be affected, but according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as little as two milligrams of fentanyl is considered fatal as it is said to be 50- 100 times stronger than morphine.
When any drug is not tested with fentanyl test strips, a person may never know whether it is laced with fentanyl. This means that taking any other illicit drugs places them at risk for exposure to fentanyl and in some cases a potentially fatal overdose or an accidental death.
Fentanyl is taken recreationally due to its euphoric 'high' effect, but also comes with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, confusion, and a reduced appetite. When it is mixed with alcohol, the side effects are worsened, and it can become a very dangerous risk.
Fentanyl and alcohol addiction
Fentanyl patches could be used for treating long-lasting pain in patients that are opioid tolerant but can also be habit forming if used over a long time.
Fentanyl belongs to a class of drugs that are highly addictive and carries a high risk for abuse, while alcohol is also very addictive. People may combine fentanyl and alcohol to make the 'high' stronger, and this places them at a risk for addiction. The high potency of fentanyl is often misunderstood, especially when combined with alcohol, and a person can easily become physically and psychologically dependent on both substances.
When fentanyl and alcohol are combined, they increase each other's effects. Even short-term use of the two substances can cause a medical emergency. Using them over time can cause a person to develop a tolerance to the mixture. This means that a person will need to increase their drug use and drink more alcohol to achieve the same effect.
This often causes people to keep on consuming more, eventually strengthening fentanyl and alcohol addiction.
The dangers of mixing fentanyl and alcohol
The group of side effects caused by alcohol is made much worse when combined with fentanyl. It can challenge the body to perform basic functions and can have long-term effects on mental and physical health.
Even though fentanyl is an opioid and a powerful painkiller, it is a central nervous system depressant as it slows down the functions of the brain and body. It can cause slurred speech, low blood pressure, and a low breathing rate. Alcohol too is a central nervous system depressant. Fentanyl and alcohol interact by both causing respiratory depression, and by acting on the same systems, they can cause a potential overdose.
Depending on factors such as height, size, gender, or tolerance for the drugs, fentanyl and alcohol will cause reactions in the body that will slow down a person's heart rate, on top of their breathing rate. The problem is it can do so to the point that the body and brain do not get the oxygen it needs, causing a shutdown, a loss of consciousness, or even death.
Around 71,000 deaths in the United States were caused by fentanyl in 2021.
Overdose is always more likely when mixing fentanyl with alcohol, cocaine, or other drugs. In the case of combining it with alcohol, fentanyl and alcohol overdose could happen even with small doses. Alcohol may amplify fentanyl overdose symptoms, which can result in slowed breathing, chest pains, seizures, passing out, and death.
Most opioid overdose deaths in the United States are caused by synthetic opioids that are bought on the illegal drug market. The fact that fentanyl is produced at a cheap cost makes it easy for manufacturers to add it to other drugs, making them more powerful, and it is also what makes it so deadly.
Taking fentanyl with any other substance, whether it is prescribed medication such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors - which are antidepressants- or alcohol, places a person at increased risk for an overdose.
Drug overdose deaths usually require rescue breathing, and show through the following signs:
- A change in breathing rate
- Chest pain
- Change in size of the eye pupils
- Cold and clammy skin
- Blue or purple color of the skin
- Respiratory failure
As with any substance use, the best chance for overcoming an addiction or leading a sober life is through addiction treatment. Fighting addiction is very difficult and can sometimes feel impossible without professional medical advice or a licensed medical professional.
If you or a loved one is trying to stop fentanyl and alcohol use, it is best not to attempt detox on your own or at home. Often, withdrawal symptoms come about when a person stops drug abuse, as the body has become used to a substance. They can be painful and dangerous. Treatment programs offer a medical setting for detox and this could provide crucial safety if a person was mixing fentanyl with alcohol.
Related: Fentanyl Detox Program
Health professionals will also consider a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, that often co-occurs in people struggling with substance abuse. To treat addiction to fentanyl and alcohol, a person may have to undergo various kinds of therapies after detox.
These can include individual therapy, often called cognitive behavioral therapy. Here, a person identifies the underlying cause for starting drug use and triggers that may cause them to use drugs again. They can learn how to respond to these triggers healthily instead of using drugs again. Other therapies include a group setting, often as support groups, where fellow peers sharing similar difficulties in battling addiction interact.
Where can I find treatment?
Cornerstone provides various addiction treatment options and treatment programs that can be tailored to your specific needs. Our detox facilities are open 24/7, and each client will have a personally assigned primary clinician to help them through the process.
No matter how or when your addiction or drug use started, Cornerstone is here to help. Our experienced, caring staff will ensure that you get the best help and support you need for a full recovery and sobriety after treatment. Get in contact today to start your journey to recovery today.