Synthetic narcotic painkiller, fentanyl, mixed up in the death of singer Prince in 2016, has been identified as being responsible for the opioid crisis in the nation, according to new findings.
Deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the main triggers of drug overdose deaths in the United States,” says Linda Richter, PhD, director of policy research and analysis for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
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Richter and other experts talked about fentanyl, how it works, and why it is so lethal when misused.
What is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid approved for use as a painkiller and anesthetic by the FDA. It works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, but it does so faster and in smaller doses than morphine or heroin. It increases levels of the chemical dopamine, which controls feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and relaxation – like other opioids.
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How is fentanyl used legally, as a prescription medication?
Fentanyl treats patients who need long-term relief from severe pain, and it treats pain after surgery. When used for medical purposes, it is often given in a shot, a patch on the skin, or in lozenges.
How and why has it become a common illegally abused drug?
Fentanyl is about 50-100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more effective than many forms of heroin. It can be dangerous and deadly if abused.
How long has it been on the market?
Fentanyl was created in 1960 and introduced as an anesthetic later that era. It can be easily and cheaply prepared in a lab.
What makes fentanyl so deadly?
Fentanyl has rapid and potent effects on the brain and body due to its chemical structure. Very small amounts can be very dangerous. According to Richter;
“It only takes a tiny amount of the drug to cause a deadly reaction. Fentanyl can depress breathing and lead to death. The risk of overdose is high with fentanyl.”
How is fentanyl contributing to U.S. overdose deaths and the nation’s opioid crisis?
In spite of the rather low rate of fentanyl prescriptions, it has become a key player in the opioid crisis. Illegal versions of fentanyl were largely responsible for the tripling of overdose deaths from synthetic opioids in just 2 years — from 3,105 in 2013 to 9,580 in 2015, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some fentanyl users become addicted to the drug and then move on to heroin.
What happens when someone stops using fentanyl?
Withdrawal symptoms can be really uncomfortable and painful. Symptoms of withdrawal may include abdominal pain, diarrhea, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, rapid heart rate, anxiety, and tremors.
What is the treatment for addiction to fentanyl?
Treatment for fentanyl addiction includes the use of FDA-approved medications. These are methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone – prescribed by a health care professional. It also includes professional therapy and recovery support systems, such as group counseling.
“There are medical interventions that work, and every person with an opioid use disorder should receive such professional care and have the treatments covered by insurance,” Richter says.
Can anything be done to reverse a fentanyl overdose?
Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse overdoses of fentanyl. However, because the opioid is so powerful, patients often need much higher doses of the medication to be successful. Law enforcement officials reported that late Prince received Narcan in the days before his death, but it didn’t work.