The United States is in the throes of a frightening and devastating opioid epidemic. Over 900 people die every single week from opioid-related overdoses, and these statistics continue to climb.
Opioids ravage entire cities. They break apart families, destroy marriages, and ruin individual lives. And while the problem may have begun with the escalation of prescribed opioid medication like Vicodin, Percocet, and Oxycodone in pill mills across the country, it's been amplified with one of the deadliest players in town: Fentanyl.
Heroin kills. Any use can result in death. That said, fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, is approximately 50x stronger than heroin and up to 100x stronger than morphine. Though it can be prescribed legally for patients with severe pain or medical complications, it is also made, distributed, and used illegally. Replacing heroin, the US Centers for Disease Control recently proclaimed fentanyl as the deadliest drug in America.
While some may pursue fentanyl, most users don't seek it out intentionally. Instead, many drug dealers mix fentanyl with other substances like heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine, because it's cheaper to produce.
Because users are often unaware of the potency, they face a greater likelihood of overdosing. After all, they may assume they are taking one substance only to be taking something infinitely stronger.
How Fentanyl Affects The Brain
Fentanyl, like other opioids, binds to the brain's opioid receptors. The major effects include:
- feelings of euphoria and happiness
- drowsiness and sedation
- problems breathing or unconsciousness
Chronic opioid use results in the brain adapting to the substance, which increases the individual's tolerance. When users have an increased tolerance, they need to take more of the substance to feel the intended effects. Thus, they often resort to more drastic measures to obtain, use, and maintain drug use.
This vicious pattern can result in severe medical and emotional consequences. Furthermore, once stopping or abstaining from the substance, people enter a state of withdrawal which can include:
- severe bone and muscle pain
- vomiting and diarrhea
- uncontrollable body movements
- cold flashes and flu-like symptoms
- depression or anxiety
- intensified opioid cravings
When someone overdoses on fentanyl, their breathing slows or stops. Naloxone treatment can reverse the overdose if provided right away. However, due to fentanyl's severe potency, an individual may need multiple Naloxone doses.
What Can Be Done About The Fentanyl Epidemic?
The opioid crisis continues to remain an ongoing problem without a clear solution. When government officials began cracking down on prescription opioids availability, many people turned to cheaper opioids (i.e., heroin) to stave withdrawal symptoms. In response to the heroin epidemic, fentanyl continues to represent a growing concern.
That said, public health and education agencies continue to work together to
- conduct research into addiction treatment
- provide wide and affordable access for treatment and recovery
- identify alternative solutions for pain management
- educate and promote awareness for Naloxone and its reversal effects
While there isn't a cure to the epidemic, hope is available. As we continue to learn more about fentanyl effects, we continue to learn a better response system for helping those who are struggling.