Fentanyl Effects, Risks, Abuse & Addiction Treatment

Fentanyl is a prescription, synthetic opioid that produces similar effects as morphine. It is the most addictive opioid available and can result in serious health complications, such as an overdose, abuse, and physical dependence.
Evidence Based
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What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a prescription, synthetic opioid that produces similar effects as morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. This drug is typically prescribed to patients after invasive surgeries to help reduce pain. It can also treat chronic pain in people who have built a tolerance to other less potent opioids. Lastly, doctors often prescribe fentanyl to advanced cancer patients over 18 years of age.

Patients can either take fentanyl as a lozenge, skin patch, or shot. Prescription names for the drug include:

  • Duragesic®
  • Actiq®
  • Sublimaze®

Common “street names” for fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin include:

  • Apache
  • Cash
  • China White
  • China Girl
  • Dance Fever
  • TNT
  • Friend
  • Goodfella
  • Murder 8
  • Jackpot
  • Tango
  • He-man

In the U.S., fentanyl is a schedule II prescription drug, which means it has a high potential for abuse. Due to its highly addictive properties, patients should only take fentanyl as directed by a doctor. Although, people who use fentanyl as prescribed can also become dependent on the drug. Taking too much or increasing your dosage without supervision can also result in serious health complications and addiction over time.

Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids increased by almost 50 percent between 2016 and 2017.

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Illegally-Made Fentanyl Addiction and Abuse

When prescribed by a doctor in the correct dosages, fentanyl is safe and effective. However, prescription fentanyl is still linked to abuse and misuse because it has highly addictive properties.

In addition, fentanyl is illegally made in labs and then sold in a powder form or pill form. It can also be dropped on blot paper or put in nasal sprays and eye drops. Illegal, non-pharmaceutical forms of the drug are linked to the most recent cases of fentanyl-related deaths and overdoses in the United States. In fact, in 2016, synthetic opioids (including illegally made fentanyl) were the most common drugs people overdosed and died from.

If you are addicted to fentanyl, intense withdrawal symptoms will develop after stopping use. These side effects can develop just a couple hours after taking the drug. Common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Extreme, uncontrollable cravings for the drug
  • Bone pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Leg spasms
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Goosebumps
  • Cold flashes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
Graphic of person being sick or having side effects.

Side Effects and Risks of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is a commonly abused drug because it produces heroin-like effects. Often times, people also combine this drug with heroin, MDMA, methamphetamine, or cocaine to enhance its effects. Although, these are very dangerous drug combinations and typically result in overdoses or death.

Common side effects of fentanyl include:

  • Extreme euphoria
  • Depression (after the high wears off)
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Difficulties Breathing
  • Feeling sedated

On the other hand, severe side effects of fentanyl include:

  • Tolerance to the drug, resulting in dependence and addiction
  • High risk of an overdose occurring
  • Respiratory depression and arrest
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Unconsciousness
  • Fainting
  • Coma
  • Death

Since fentanyl is highly potent, there is a high risk an overdose and death will occur. Many times, the illegal form of fentanyl is cut into other powders and pills. As a result, people overdose from synthetic opioids without even knowing the pill they took contained it.

Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were linked to about 28,400 opioid-related deaths in the U.S. in 2017.

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Treatment Options

Fentanyl is habit-forming, so physical dependence and psychological addiction can develop very quickly. If you suspect you or a loved one is addicted to the drug, treatment is necessary to prevent an overdose and death. Similar to other opioids, such as morphine and heroin, behavioral therapy in combination with medications is effective in treating people with a fentanyl addiction. For example, common medications include:

  • Buprenorphine — this medication is an opioid agonist-antagonist that blocks other narcotics while reducing withdrawal risks and cravings. It is either prescribed as a daily dissolving tablet, cheek film, or 6-month implant under the skin.
  • Methadone — similar to buprenorphine, methadone is an opioid agonist. However, it does not block other narcotics while preventing withdrawal. People take this medication as a daily liquid dispensed only in specialty regulated clinics.
  • Naltrexone — this medication is a non-addictive opioid antagonist that blocks the effects of other narcotics. It is taken as a daily pill or a monthly injection.

In addition to medications, behavioral therapy and counseling also effectively treat synthetic opioid addictions. They do so by helping people change their behavior and attitudes regarding the drug and learn ways to cope with withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Examples of behavioral therapies include:

  • Motivational Interviews — this treatment takes place in an intimate counseling setting. In short, it helps people cope with the recovery process and stay abstinent.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — this form of treatment helps people manage stress, triggers, expectations, and behaviors related to fentanyl.
  • Contingency Management — a voucher-based treatment that awards people with “points” based on their length of sobriety. It also helps people develop healthy habits and encourages them to live drug-free after treatment completes.

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Resources

“Fentanyl.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 May 2019, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/fentanyl.html.

“Fentanyl.” DEA, www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl.

“Fentanyl: MedlinePlus Drug Information.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a605043.html.

“Fentanyl.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Compound Database, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Fentanyl#section=Other-CAS.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Fentanyl.” NIDA, 6 June 2016, www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/fentanyl.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Fentanyl.” NIDA, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl.

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Updated on: July 17, 2020
Author
Alyssa Hill
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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