Fentanyl Addiction

Libby Pelligrini
Calendar icon Last Updated: 01/25/2024

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What is Fentanyl Addiction?

Fentanyl is a fast-acting opioid commonly used to reduce pain during surgery and pain caused by certain cancer treatments. But fentanyl is also illicitly manufactured, and frequently cut or mixed with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other street drugs without users knowing. Fentanyl abuse carries an exceptionally high risk of overdose since the drug is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine.

People who use fentanyl in a controlled medical setting should not worry about tolerance, dependence, or addiction to this drug since medical staff administers fentanyl. However, those who use fentanyl illicitly without a prescription or those who buy heroin, counterfeit painkillers, and other street drugs, face a high risk for dependence, addiction, and overdose. Though fentanyl addiction can be extremely deadly, those who use this drug can experience a safe, full recovery at an opioid addiction treatment center.

What are the Risks of Fentanyl Addiction?

Fentanyl is a significant contributor to the current opioid epidemic in America. In 2016, over 46% of all opioid overdoses involved fentanyl, and 19,400 lives were claimed due to this dangerous substance. Fentanyl is quite potent, as it is a manufactured painkiller intended only to be administered in small doses by medical professionals.

The reality is that fentanyl is being cut into other street drugs, and many people are taking the drug while thinking they are consuming heroin or another substance their body has learned to tolerate. Chemicals used in street fentanyl can often trigger an overdose instantly.

Overdoses from synthetic opioids have been on the rise in recent years, which can be mainly attributed to the production and use of illegal fentanyl. It only takes a couple of grains of salt worth of fentanyl to trigger an overdose instantly. In fact, overdose deaths by illicitly manufactured fentanyl have more than doubled in the past year alone.

In 2017, the U.S. government seized 1,485 pounds of fentanyl, which is 742 times the number of pounds seized in 2013. If the rate at which fentanyl use rates are rising in the U.S. continues, it could lead to more than 500,000 drug overdose deaths by the year 2025.

What are the Symptoms of Fentanyl Addiction?

Fentanyl produces many of the same symptoms as other opioids, but for a shorter duration and at a greater intensity level due to its high potency. Long-term fentanyl use and addiction increase the risk for serious health complications including overdose, coma, and death. Knowing common side effects of fentanyl addiction can help you determine whether it’s time for you or a loved one to get help.

Side effects of fentanyl addiction:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Heartburn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Problems urinating
  • Changes in vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Respiratory depression
  • Redding of the skin
  • Itching
  • Swelling and sores

People who abuse this drug can also experience severe mood swings, going from intense euphoria to extreme depression very quickly. The drug also causes withdrawal effects in those who become dependent on it, and these are similar to the symptoms caused by other opioids, including muscle and bone pain, runny nose, and other flu-like symptoms.

What are the Signs of Fentanyl Addiction?

The biological effects associated with fentanyl abuse are indistinguishable from those of heroin, and many individuals who are addicted to heroin attempt to use the drug as a substitute when they cannot obtain their substance of choice. Still, any misuse of fentanyl is dangerous, and those who abuse it consistently will be likely to experience addiction and other serious effects.

If you suspect someone is abusing fentanyl, look for the following signs:

  • Drug paraphernalia in their possession
  • Financial problems
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Downplaying their drug use, or lying about dosage
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms when they cannot use
  • Being unable to meet obligations
  • Drug seeking behavior (e.g., forging prescriptions)
  • Mood swings

What to do if Someone You Love is Abusing Fentanyl?

Fentanyl abuse can lead to an overdose and death, especially those who have become tolerant to fentanyl and use higher doses to achieve euphoria and other effects. If someone you love is abusing fentanyl, it’s time to empower and motivate them to seek help so they can avoid suffering a deadly overdose and other serious health problems associated with opioid abuse.

If they are refusing treatment or are in denial about their addiction, it is important to do welfare checks on your loved one, to ensure they are alive and have not overdosed. Calling them once a day or checking in on them can help keep them safe, without enabling their usage.

A fentanyl overdose can be deadly, so if you notice these signs and symptoms in a loved one, call 911 immediately and inform dispatch that you think someone is overdosing on fentanyl:

  • Blue lips, and fingertips
  • Cold skin
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Limp body
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Choking noises or gurgling
  • Paleness in the face

First responders often carry naloxone on hand to revive victims of opioid overdose, but victims of fentanyl overdose often require multiple doses of naloxone to stay alive due to the drug’s potency. Naloxone can now be obtained in many states without a prescription at most pharmacies. If your loved one is abusing fentanyl, start carrying naloxone so you can prevent your loved one from suffering a fatal overdose.

Which Treatment options are available for Fentanyl Addiction?

Fentanyl addiction treatment often requires long-term care, especially when this has been the primary drug of an individual’s abuse. Fentanyl is incredibly strong, so it is likely that the user’s dependence and addiction will be as well. Often, methadone maintenance is the best choice for treatment, and the patient can be maintained on the drug for as long as necessary. Those who are suffering from additional issues, like comorbid mental disorders, should also consider seeking inpatient care.

Like with other opioid addictions, patients will begin behavioral therapy regimens to learn how to view their abuse differently and how to avoid relapse in the future. But treatment for fentanyl addiction especially can be long and involved because of the drug’s potency. It is important to seek the treatment option that will be as intensive as necessary for the patient so they can safely recover.

Medical Reviewer
Libby Pelligrini, MMS, PA-C
Physician Assistant & Medical Writer
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Libby Pellegrini, MMS, PA-C, is a professionally-trained physician assistant. She has worked in numerous emergency healthcare settings, ranging from the rural United States to large metropolitan areas. Her experience helping patients suffering from acute crises related to intoxication and substance use disorders informs her passion for addiction medicine.