Death in Seconds: Everything you need to know about fentanyl

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Opioid addiction and overdoses from heroin have been a problem in America for decades, but recently there has been a shift that has made the drug crisis from both prescription pills and street drugs deadlier than ever.

The recent spread of illicit fentanyl use has turned a health crisis into one of the deadliest epidemics in this country’s history, killing more than 65,000 people just last year. For comparison, 58,200 US troops were killed during the entirety of the Vietnam War, which lasted 20 years.

The drug is so dangerous that even allowing the powder to touch your skin by accident can lead to life or death situations, as one officer in Ohio discovered earlier this year. Within minutes of brushing fentanyl residue off his uniform, East Liverpool police officer Chris Green started experiencing symptoms of an overdose.

So, what exactly is fentanyl and why has it suddenly flooded the streets? Here’s everything you need to know about the dangerous drug capable of killing in mere seconds.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid typically manufactured for medical use, similar to morphine but as much as 100 times more potent. As such, it has been around for decades being used in hospitals and other clinical settings where it can be closely controlled.

Like many controlled substances, the drug has also been used illicitly since its creation. However, it is increasingly being found mixed into other drugs like heroin. As Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorder Initiative and the Addiction Consult Team at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), told the Harvard Gazette, “Much of what is being sold as heroin now is either mixed with fentanyl or pure fentanyl.”

“Prescription fentanyl has been around for a long time and there are numerous studies looking at people who used prescription fentanyl for nonmedical reasons,” she continued. “But those numbers were relatively low and never accounted for much of a problem until we began seeing the heroin source contaminated with fentanyl.”

What makes Fentanyl so dangerous?

For the most part, fentanyl affects your body and brain the same way as any opioids do. The drug crosses the blood-brain barrier where it binds to receptors in the brain, creating feelings of euphoria.

“What makes it more or less euphoric than other opioids is how quickly it binds” Lewis Nelson, MD, said to Forbes. Nelson is a medical toxicologist and emergency physician at NYU’s School of Medicine. “If I give you morphine intravenously, it circulates in the blood, then it crosses blood-brain barrier and binds the opioid receptors. But it takes a little while. Heroin crosses much more rapidly–so it’s really euphoric. And fentanyl is very rapid, and therefore very euphoric.”

This rapid effect is only made more dangerous by fentanyl’s potency. While heroin can be lethal in small amounts, it takes significantly less fentanyl to have serious effects. “Small excesses can lead to overdose,” noted Nelson.

To make matters worse, synthetic fentanyl analogues are also starting to appear on the street. One such substance called carfentanil is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than heroin.

“It’s actually used as a large animal tranquilizer — that’s the only practical use carfentanil was designed for,” Wakeman explained. “But we are now seeing that contaminating the supply as well.”

Why is Fentanyl suddenly so common?

There has been much speculation about what fueled the sudden spike in illicit fentanyl usage, but Wakeman believes it is the result of what she calls a “cat-and-mouse game of supply-focused drug crackdown efforts.”

Source: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

“Because fentanyl is so potent you need a much smaller amount of it to have the same effects, and so the margin of profits is much greater. People can produce or smuggle in a much smaller volume of the drug and then cut it with other substances and sell it for a higher profit. So you can imagine if it’s 100 times more potent than heroin, you need 100 less times the amount of volume to get the same sort of profit, so people are mixing it with other filler substances and then selling it as heroin.”

What should you do if you encounter or overdose from opiates like fentanyl?

All opiates are dangerous and can be lethal. However, the high potency of fentanyl makes any potential contact with opioids a life-or-death situation. If you witness a person who appears to be in medical distress related to opioids, it is imperative that you immediately contact medical assistance. If you act quickly, they may be able to administer naloxone – a drug which can potentially save someone from an overdose.

It is also important to know that opioid addiction is always treatable, even after overdoses or encounters with fentanyl. If you think or someone you know is living with opioid addiction, please call us at 888-298-4673 before it is too late. We can answer any questions you have and provide the right treatment and recovery services for you.

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