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What is Fentanyl?

By Manjari Bansal
Fentanyl is a prescription drug that has a high potential for addiction due to its euphoric effect. Find out what fentanyl is and how people misuse it.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is prescribed to treat severe pain. However, people misuse it because of its ability to produce a potent high and feelings of euphoria. Learn more about what fentanyl is and how people misuse it.

What is Fentanyl?

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid prescribed for pain management, typically for individuals suffering from severe pain,” Kathryn Lee, EdM, MA, MHC, a psychotherapist at Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy Practice in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“It is highly addictive and should only be prescribed and administered under medical supervision. Fentanyl produces feelings of euphoria, sedation, and relaxation and can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine, making it incredibly dangerous when misused,” Lee says.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the most common drugs involved in deaths due to overdose in the U.S. are synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. In 2011, only 14.3 % of recorded opioid-related deaths were due to fentanyl, but in 2017, nearly 59.8% of deaths were attributed to fentanyl misuse.

“Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become a leading cause of drug overdose and death,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“Fentanyl is highly addictive as it creates an extreme sense of euphoria among its users, resulting in the individual becoming dependent on the substance to induce pleasure,” Sternlicht says.

According to NIDA, like other opioid drugs such as heroin and morphine, fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors in your body that control pain and emotions. When you use it many times, your brain becomes dependent on it, and you can become addicted. Fentanyl produces the following effects when misused:

  • Extreme happiness or euphoria
  • Drowsiness and sedation
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and constipation
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Loss of consciousness

How Do People Misuse Fentanyl?

According to NIDA, professionals prescribe fentanyl as a shot, a skin patch, or as lozenges that dissolve in the mouth and relieve pain. However, illegal fentanyl is sold in the form of a powder, dissolvable paper, eye drops, nasal sprays, or pills.

“People can use fentanyl by smoking/inhaling, injecting, and snorting it. It can work almost instantly and cause a rush. Individuals usually overdose within the first 5 minutes of taking it, but it can be hard to predict when someone will eventually overdose as there are other factors involved like tolerance and substance mixing,” Monty Ghosh, MD, addiction specialist at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“It can be 50 times more potent than heroin, and as such, a small amount of fentanyl is often diluted and sold off as heroin as it can produce similar amounts of euphoria, yet it is much cheaper to make and smuggle,” Ghosh says.

Illicit drugs are also sometimes laced with fentanyl. “Individuals may also unintentionally use fentanyl without awareness because of its properties. When unknowingly or knowingly mixed with other illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, an individual may misuse fentanyl and place the individual at an even higher risk for opioid addiction, overdose, and death,” Lee says.

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