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Fentanyl Misuse: 4 Facts You Should Know

By Jennifer Daluro
Fentanyl helps with severe pain, but this synthetic opioid is also highly addictive. Learn more about the dangers of fentanyl misuse.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning that it is made in a laboratory to act on the brain in the same manner as natural opioids, which are made from the naturally-occuring substances found in certain poppy seeds. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is 50-100 times more powerful as a painkiller than morphine (a natural opioid). Because of its potency, fentanyl has the potential to cause a fatal overdose. Read on for four key facts about the dangers of fentanyl misuse.

Fentanyl easily leads to dependence and addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that fentanyl use can lead to addiction. This is because taking fentanyl, even in accordance with your prescribing doctor's instructions, can lead to dependence. Dependence on a drug is when you experience uncomfortable and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms if you stop using it. And dependence can lead to addiction, the severest form of which is known as substance use disorder. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Cold flashes with gooseflesh
  • Severe cravings

The discomfort associated with these symptoms can make it hard to stop using fentanyl. Your method of taking the drug can also influence whether you become addicted. For instance, MedlinePlus notes that fentanyl patches increase addiction risk.

Overdose symptoms can be lethal.

Fentanyl side effects can be lethal. “Fentanyl can have a wide range of effects on the body such as nausea, lethargy, constipation, breathing problems, sedation, and death," Boris MacKey, an addiction therapist at Rehab 4 Addiction, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

An overdose, which is when a drug produces serious and/or life-threatening effects, can also occur. Fentanyl overdose symptoms include:

  • Slow breathing
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Low blood pressure
  • Small, pinpoint pupils
  • Bluish fingernails and lips
  • Lethargy
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Confusion
  • Clumsiness
  • Unconsciousness

If left untreated, overdose can lead to coma and death.

Illicit Fentanyl can be especially dangerous.

Using illicitly manufactured fentanyl increases your risk of death. You have no way of knowing just how much fentanyl one illegal tablet contains.

According to the DEA, 2 mg of fentanyl can be lethal—depending on a person's size, tolerance, and usage history. And the dangers increase with illegal fentanyl, especially since one tablet can contain as much as 5.1 mg of fentanyl.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the most common drugs involved in overdose fatalities in the U.S. In 2017, 59% of opioid-related fatalities involved fentanyl. 

Long-term fentanyl use has specific risks.

Wondering how long fentanyl stays in your system?

Mayo Clinic Laboratories notes that fentanyl can be detected for up to three days in the urine. But how long it stays in your system depends on the potency, frequency, and duration of use. Beyond detection of fentanyl in your body, though, there are certain health concerns associated with long-term use of the drug. 

“Because fentanyl causes respiratory depression, pneumonia is common in patients who use the drug for extended periods,” Allen Masry, MD, a psychiatrist and Medical Director at All In Solutions Counseling Center tells WedMD Connect to Care. “Additionally, fentanyl has immunosuppressive properties. This can increase the likelihood of all kinds of infections in long-term fentanyl users.” 

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