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Fentanyl and the Opioid Epidemic: Everything You Need to Know

By Jen Venegas
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Moe Gelbart, PhD on March 23, 2022
Fentanyl-related overdoses are on the rise. Here is what you need to know about fentanyl and the role it plays in the opioid epidemic.

You have probably heard about fentanyl in the media over the last few years, as coverage about the drug increases. In fact, fentanyl-related substance abuse cases have played a part in the ongoing opioid epidemic. It’s important to know what fentanyl is and how it factors into the opioid crisis. Read on for some key facts about this potent drug. 

What is Fentanyl?

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Even small doses, as little as two milligrams (the size of two grains of salt) is a fatal dose for most people. 

Many counterfeit prescription medications have been found to be laced with fentanyl. The synthetic opioid can also be found in other illegal substances like cocaine. For drug users, this can be especially dangerous and even fatal.

What is the Role of Fentanyl in the Opioid Epidemic?

Fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths have occurred at an alarming rate in recent years. In fact, an updated issue brief released by the American Medical Association in September 2021 identifies illicit fentanyl as one of the drivers of the opioid epidemic. 

“The epidemic started with the overprescribing of prescription opioids, which led to many overdoses related to the medications prescribed to individuals,” Nicole Delmonico, MT (ASCP), MPAS, PA-C at CleanSlate Centers, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“When this was brought to light, the supply of prescription opioids slowed significantly, forcing people to seek out heroin to avoid withdrawal, which then became the leading cause of overdose and death. Recently, heroin has largely been replaced by fentanyl, which has caused overdose deaths to skyrocket, with greater concerns for fentanyl being combined with additional substances such as cocaine,” Delmonico explains. 

Many people purchasing counterfeit medication or illegal substances have no idea that what they are about to use might not be what they purchased, even if obtained from a trusted source. When someone buys counterfeit pills or illegal substances, there is a risk that the pills or substances will be laced with fentanyl. 

And, because of fentanyl’s high potency, even small amounts of it can be fatal. As the opioid crisis continues to worsen, so do fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths. 

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl overdose treatment often necessitates more naloxone than other, less-potent opioids might require. Naloxone is a medication that can be used in an emergency to temporarily block the symptoms of an opioid overdose. Due to fentanyl’s high potency in comparison to other opioids, more doses of naloxone are sometimes needed in order to successfully block the effects of a fentanyl overdose. 

It’s also important to know that naloxone is not guaranteed to reverse all opioid overdoses. And, while not all doses of fentanyl will cause death, overdoses are often hard to treat and many do result in fatalities. 

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

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