What is Fentanyl and How Addictive is Fentanyl?

Overview of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is an incredibly powerful prescription opioid drug that is between 80 and 100 times stronger than morphine. In 2017, there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States, with the highest increases in overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl.

Fentanyl patches, shots, and lozenges are used to treat severe pain from cancer, surgical recovery, or the drug is given to patients with chronic pain that other synthetic painkillers cannot treat. The drug is incredibly addictive, and dealers will sometimes mix heroin with fentanyl to create a potent chemical that gets people hooked quickly. Unfortunately, heroin combined with fentanyl is deadly, and “bad batches” of heroin laced with fentanyl have caused many deaths.

How is fentanyl used?

Fentanyl is a prescription painkiller that is given as either a shot, a patch, or a lozenge. Illegally sold fentanyl comes in a powder form and is either dropped onto blotter paper, made into pills, or put in eye drops or nasal sprays. Dealers will sometimes mix fentanyl powder with heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, or MDMA. People who take these street drugs are unaware that what they are ingesting is laced with fentanyl, increasing the chances of someone experiencing an accidental and fatal overdose.

How does someone become addicted to fentanyl?

The human brain is full of natural opioid receptors that play a role in controlling pain and regulating a person’s emotions. When someone takes an opioid drug like fentanyl, these receptors are activated. Because the human body possesses these receptors, drugs like fentanyl are incredibly addictive. The tolerance window for opioid drugs is tiny, and it doesn’t take much of the substance or a long period of time for someone to build up a tolerance and become both physically and emotionally addicted to fentanyl. This process by which the opioid receptors become activated is one of the reasons why medications like methadone can help people maintain sobriety once they initially recover from a fentanyl addiction. Methadone and medicines like it bind to the opioid receptors and block them.

What are the side effects of taking fentanyl?

  • Extreme euphoria and happiness
  • An inability to feel pain or discomfort
  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and constipation
  • Slowed respiratory rate
  • Unconsciousness

What are the signs of fentanyl addiction?

If a person starts taking too much of their prescription fentanyl, they are abusing the drug. People who are addicted to fentanyl may try to “doctor shop,” or tell their doctor that they lost or accidentally threw away their prescription in the hopes of obtaining more drugs. They may also try to steal a friend or a family member’s fentanyl prescription. Anytime a person uses a prescription drug in a way that it was not intended for use or they do not follow their doctor’s directions for the correct dose, they are abusing the drug and are exhibiting definite signs of addiction.

Signs of Opioid Use Disorder

When a person develops an addiction to an opioid drug like fentanyl, a doctor will diagnose an opioid use disorder, which is the clinical term for addiction. The diagnostic criteria for this disorder, which are also signs of fentanyl addiction, are as follows:

  • Taking larger doses of fentanyl than intended
  • Being unable to cut back on fentanyl use
  • Intense fentanyl cravings
  • Giving up other activities because of fentanyl abuse
  • Continuing to use fentanyl even when it causes or makes a physical or mental health problem worse
  • Using fentanyl even when it causes relationship problems
  • Being unable to fulfill duties at work or home because of fentanyl use 
  • Spending significant amounts of time using fentanyl and recovering from its side effects
  • Using fentanyl even when it is physically dangerous, such as driving while under the influence of the drug
  • Showing fentanyl tolerance
  • Developing fentanyl withdrawal symptoms when not using

Keep in mind that someone who has a fentanyl addiction may actually believe they are using heroin since fentanyl mixed with heroin provides a stronger high at low doses, making it an attractive option for drug dealers looking to make the most profit. Heroin users may be unknowingly ingesting fentanyl that dealers are mixing with other drugs.

What are the signs of a fentanyl overdose?

Fentanyl is exceptionally potent, and the risk of overdosing accidentally on fentanyl is high. People who are addicted to prescription fentanyl can take more than the allotted dose in an attempt to bypass their body’s tolerance levels and experience a euphoric high. Sometimes, taking fentanyl can make people confused or forgetful, and they can take an additional dose by accident. If a street drug is laced with fentanyl, a user won’t know it, and they can accidentally overdose. As soon as someone begins exhibiting the following signs of a  fentanyl overdose, it is crucial that a witness calls 911.

  • Lethargy and confusion
  • Trouble breathing
  • Problems walking
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Slowed respiratory rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blue-tinged lips and fingernails
  • Unconsciousness

What are the symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal?

Because of the way fentanyl and opioid drugs like it interact with the brain, it is an incredibly addictive drug that is difficult to quit. Once someone has developed a tolerance and a physical and emotional addiction to fentanyl, withdrawal symptoms will start as soon as they miss a dose of the drug. While fentanyl withdrawal symptoms usually aren’t fatal, they are extremely unpleasant and painful. Also, prescription opioid drugs like fentanyl and street heroin will induce long-lasting, extreme cravings in a recovering user. These extreme cravings, characteristic of opioid drugs, are one of the reasons why it is so hard for people to quit without ongoing outside intervention and help.

For most people, withdrawal symptoms will start between twelve and twenty-four hours after last use. The physical symptoms of withdrawal and detox will peak around 48 hours after previous use and will last for about a week before tapering off. When the physical symptoms begin to taper off, intense psychological symptoms will manifest. In some cases, these symptoms can last for months or years after cessation.

Fentanyl Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Sweating and tremors
  • Stomach cramps and diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever and chills
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Aches and pains
  • Tearfulness and a runny nose
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Intense cravings to use
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble concentrating

How is fentanyl addiction treated?

Some people may benefit from taking other medications, such as buprenorphine or naltrexone, which can help people to stay sober from fentanyl as they undergo treatment. As a part of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), these medications are used alongside therapy to help people with opioid addictions achieve the best outcomes. In some cases, people may continue to take medications for months or even years after initial withdrawal symptoms have subsided to help them continue to stay drug-free. These medications can play an integral role in the treatment process, as research has found the following benefits associated with them:

  • Improved survival, which is important given the high overdose rates associated with opioids like fentanyl 
  •  Increased rates of patients remaining in treatment
  • Reduced illegal drug use and criminal activity 
  • Better chances of maintaining employment
  • Better outcomes for pregnant women with addictions 
  • Decreased relapse rates

Medications can help people to stay in treatment, remain sober, and avoid some of the negative consequences of fentanyl addiction, but it is important for fentanyl treatment also to include some form of psychological intervention, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help patients address the underlying issues that led to drug use.

Fentanyl addiction is treated in a similar way to other addictive substances. But the treatment timeline and protocol for fentanyl addiction will differ based on the individual’s needs and the extent of their addiction. Usually, medical detox and inpatient rehab are recommended for fentanyl addiction. People in recovery often need access to prescription medications like methadone to help them remain sober and free from fentanyl cravings and long-lasting withdrawal symptoms.

Once they enter a rehab facility and complete initial treatment, patients have access to a team of trained doctors and therapists who can help them create and follow through with ongoing maintenance and aftercare plans. People recovering from fentanyl addiction usually need to attend consistent one-on-one therapy sessions, group therapy, and sometimes even family therapy to maintain sobriety and increase their chances of avoiding relapse.

Are you or a loved one struggling with fentanyl addiction and dependence? It’s never too late to reach out for help. The experienced counselors, doctors, and mental health professionals at Mission Harbor Behavioral Health are standing by to answer your questions about rehab. Please contact Mission Harbor today to learn more about your treatment options.

We serve Santa Barbara and other Southern California communities, and we offer multiple levels of care, including a partial hospitalization program and intensive outpatient services. We are also qualified to provide various types of therapy to offer something to meet each patient’s unique needs. While we do not provide residential or inpatient treatment, we do offer convenient treatment schedules with morning, afternoon, and evening options, so you can continue to care for your family and go to work while receiving fentanyl treatment.

Updated 7/25/21

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

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