Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid and has become a subject of increasing concern due to its prevalence in drug-related fatalities worldwide. Understanding what fentanyl is, how it’s used, and its effects on the body is crucial, especially for people who may be at risk of taking it.

Medical uses for fentanyl

Initially developed for medical purposes, fentanyl was designed to manage severe pain, particularly in cases where other opioids prove insufficient. Fentanyl works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord; these receptors are part of the body’s natural pain-regulating system and play a crucial role in modulating the perception of pain.

It’s primarily used for chronic pain management and is also used to induce sedation and reduce anxiety. Because of this, it’s commonly used before, during and after surgery, and is also effective in alleviating pain in cancer patients.

How is it consumed?

Fentanyl can be consumed in various forms, including patches, lozenges, injections, and nasal sprays. Illicitly, it’s often found mixed with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, increasing its potency and danger. The diversity in consumption methods makes it more accessible to people seeking intense euphoria or pain relief.

What is the effect on the body?

Upon ingestion, fentanyl rapidly enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain, where it binds to opioid receptors. When fentanyl binds to these receptors, it activates them, leading to a cascade of biochemical events within the central nervous system, including pain relief, relaxation, euphoria, sedation, respiratory depression and gastrointestinal effects (constipation, nausea and vomiting)

While the drug provides pain relief and relaxation, fentanyl also depresses respiratory function, leading to slowed breathing and potentially respiratory failure, especially when taken at higher doses.

What are the effects of an overdose?

One of the most significant dangers of a fentanyl overdose is respiratory depression, where breathing becomes slow and shallow and, in severe cases, this can lead to respiratory arrest where breathing stops altogether. This lack of oxygen can result in brain damage or death if not promptly treated. Respiratory depression causes a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream and tissues which can lead to cyanosis, characterised by blue lips, fingernails or skin.

Excessive consumption of fentanyl can lead to dangerously low blood pressure, known as hypotension. This drop in blood pressure may result in dizziness, fainting and even shock. It can also cause a slow heart rate (bradycardia) due to its depressant effects on the cardiovascular system. Bradycardia may lead to inadequate blood flow to vital organs causing the person’s skin to become cold and clammy, the body’s response to the overdose and the impairment of normal physiological processes.

In severe cases, a fentanyl overdose can lead to a coma, a prolonged state of unconsciousness. A coma is a medical emergency requiring immediate intervention to prevent further complications or death.

Due to its potency, even a small amount of fentanyl can be lethal. Prompt medical intervention, including the administration of naloxone, is crucial in reversing the effects of overdose and preventing fatalities.

Why is fentanyl so dangerous?

The potency of fentanyl is a primary factor contributing to its perilous nature. It’s estimated to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine and significantly more potent than heroin. This high potency increases the risk of overdose, especially when individuals unknowingly consume drugs laced with fentanyl. Moreover, its rapid onset of action and intense effects make it particularly addictive, leading to a higher likelihood of dependence and subsequent misuse.

How to get help for fentanyl addiction

If you or someone you know is struggling with fentanyl addiction, seeking professional help is a great step in your recovery journey. Here at ANA Treatment Centres, we offer comprehensive support and rehabilitation programmes. Our team of experienced professionals provides medical supervision, counselling and therapy to address the physical, emotional and psychological aspects of addiction.

If you, or someone you know, are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, get in touch to find out how ANA Treatment Centres can help.