Fentanyl: Effects, Addiction and Treatment
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid painkiller with a high potential for misuse, overdose, and addiction, especially when not taken as prescribed.1, 2 Increased usage of illegal fentanyl over the past decade has resulted in an opioid overdose epidemic across the United States.2(pg 1)v The good news is that evidence-based treatment for fentanyl addiction can result in positive outcomes.3 Understanding what fentanyl is, how it can be addictive and potentially lethal, and how to find fentanyl addiction treatment can be important first steps in finding help.
What is Fentanyl
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, which means it is man-made in a lab, as opposed to opioids that are naturally derived from the opium poppy plant.1,4 It is not made from the plant directly; rather, scientists use the same chemical structure of opium in the manufacturing process.4
Like other opioids, using fentanyl recreationally or not as prescribed can result in a powerful euphoric “high”.4 Fentanyl is much more potent than other opioids—50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.5 Its potency can lead to misuse and, in turn, a high risk for overdose.2 In 2021, more than 68,000 drug overdose deaths were due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.2
Fentanyl Uses and Forms
Medical providers prescribe fentanyl to treat severe pain, particularly that associated with surgery and cancer.5 When prescribed, fentanyl can be given as a shot, a skin patch, or as a lozenge.6 Illegal fentanyl, on the other hand, is sold as a powder, on blotter paper, put in eye drops and nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like other prescription opioids.6 In addition to taking a fentanyl pill orally, people may inject, snort, or smoke it.2 It can also be misused unintentionally as it can be mixed into illegal substances.
Side Effects of Fentanyl
Fentanyl binds to opioid receptors naturally present in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions.6 Thus, fentanyl side effects can include:6
- Euphoria or extreme happiness.
- Sedation and drowsiness.
- Breathing problems.
- Loss of consciousness.
Because fentanyl is highly potent, even smaller doses make it dangerous, and as a result, it carries an even greater risk for overdose.5 This is especially the case for those who use illegal drugs without knowing that they are mixed with fentanyl.6 In effect, they might be taking opioids stronger than they are used to without knowing it.6
A fentanyl overdose is a medical emergency. If you believe that you or a loved one is experiencing a fentanyl overdose, you should contact 911 emergency services immediately.7
Naloxone (the intranasal version is known by its brand name Narcan) may be administered in the event of an opioid overdose.7 Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, meaning that it binds to opioid receptors in the brain, blocking fentanyl’s ability to bind to opioid receptors, thus potentiating withdrawal symptoms .8 In effect, Naloxone has the ability to reverse an opioid overdose, making it a potentially life-saving medication, though one should still contact emergency services in the case of an opioid overdose.8
How Addictive is Fentanyl?
The euphoric highs fentanyl can produce cause the drugs to have a high potential for misuse and addiction.6(1/2 way down pg) Sustained use of fentanyl can cause one to develop a tolerance to the substance.9(bottom) In turn, the person needs to take higher and higher amounts over time to feel the same effects.9 Fentanyl addiction, or opioid use disorder (OUD), is the continual use of fentanyl despite it causing problems in a person’s life.10(OUD symptoms)
Signs of Fentanyl Misuse and Addiction
There are various signs that a person is dealing with addiction to fentanyl. For a diagnosis of OUD, at least 2 of the following fentanyl addiction symptoms must be present over the past 12 months:11
- Taking fentanyl in larger doses or over longer periods of time than was intended
- Using fentanyl in hazardous situations, such as while driving
- Continued use of fentanyl despite it causing or exacerbating mental or physical health conditions
- Significant time spent using fentanyl such that work, school, or home responsibilities are neglected
- Continued use even if it is causing problems in a person’s relationships
- There is a continual desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce or stop fentanyl use
- Craving fentanyl
- Significant amount of time spent acquiring, using, or recovering from the effects of fentanyl.
- Giving up important activities to use fentanyl
- Tolerance to fentanyl
- Withdrawal from fentanyl
Withdrawal is a very uncomfortable experience that can happen to someone who is physically dependent on fentanyl.9 Physical dependence occurs when the body is so used to the presence of the substance that it has adapted to it and needs it to function.9 In such a case, the body struggles to function if the person suddenly stops fentanyl use or significantly reduces how much they use.9 The resulting symptoms are referred to as withdrawal and are very unpleasant and may need medical treatment to manage.9
Fentanyl Addiction Treatment
Dealing with fentanyl addiction or seeing a loved one struggling with it can be difficult. The good news is that treatment can be effective in reducing overdoses and helping people live fulfilling lives.3 This is especially the case if treatment includes both medication and psychotherapy.3 Those struggling with fentanyl addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder (depression, anxiety, etc) may face additional challenges in treatment.12 Dual diagnosis treatment that simultaneously treats both conditions may be an effective option in these cases.12
Fentanyl Detox Program
Someone who is physically dependent on fentanyl would likely need medical detoxification (detox) first.13 Detox is the safe removal of fentanyl from a person’s body.13 Oftentimes this process is undergone in a medical setting, which licensed professionals can supervise the patient and administer treatments and medications as needed to ease the withdrawal process.14
Inpatient and Outpatient Fentanyl Rehab
Inpatient addiction treatment is usually a fit for someone with more severe fentanyl addiction and involves living at the facility 24/7.15 This gives the benefit of allowing the person to focus on their recovery and receive services from a multidisciplinary team that can address different aspects of treatment. While each inpatient facility may be different, generally the programs include services from therapists, psychiatrists, general practitioners, and case managers.15 Services include those such as medication treatment, individual therapy, group therapy, and linking to aftercare services.15
Outpatient treatment can include intensive outpatient (IOP) programs and outpatient therapy. IOP is a fit for someone with more severe fentanyl addiction but who must continue living at home in order to work or attend school.15 In this case, they would commute to a treatment facility a few times per week for a few hours each time.15 This gives the benefit of comprehensive treatment as the person continues to attend to personal responsibilities. Outpatient therapy involves meeting with a therapist once or twice per week and is usually a fit for someone with less severe fentanyl addiction or as a step-down from inpatient or IOP rehab to maintain progress made in treatment.16
Finding Opioid Addiction Treatment Near Me
One process for finding a fentanyl addiction program can include these 3 steps:
- Speak with your primary care provider (PCP). They can help connect you with a treatment program based on your needs since they are knowledgeable about your health history. Furthermore, they can be part of your treatment team and, after treatment, may be able to manage your OUD medication on an outpatient basis.17(1/2 way down pg)
- Contact your health insurance provider. This can help you to identify what types of treatment your plan covers.
- Identify possible treatment programs. Based on recommendations from your PCP, cost, and location, you can generate a list of a few programs to consider.
Online resources can also be useful in locating rehab centers. The American Addiction Centers (AAC) website outlines the rehab admissions process and can verify your insurance coverage for AAC treatment centers. The AAC helpline at is also available 24/7 to answer questions about fentanyl addiction and help you locate rehab programs. Don’t delay, call us today to get started on your road to recovery.
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