It can feel like every news broadcast mentions fentanyl. A news search on synthetic opioids yields almost 30,000 results. Fentanyl is similar to morphine but much more powerful — 50 to 100 times more potent, to be exact. It can be a prescribed medication to treat severe pain, especially after surgery, and be made, sold, and used illegally.
Concerns over fentanyl are increasing, not only because of how deadly it can be but also because of the drug’s other long-term effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the “overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, which includes fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, increased over 56% from 2019 to 2020.” Other long-term consequences include breathing problems, heart failure, mood disorders, and, of course, addiction and overdose.
The Rise of Fentanyl
The latest statistics from the CDC found that across age groups, race and ethnicity groups, and genders, fentanyl was the most common drug involved in fatal overdoses in 2021.
How did fentanyl become such a problem? One of the main reasons that the use of fentanyl and all its consequences have increased so much is the pandemic. The closures and reduction in cross-national traffic that affected many daily items for Americans also affected drug smugglers who could not move bulkier drugs across the borders.
Experts at Brandeis University’s Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management shared that smugglers turned to fentanyl which is easier to transport in smaller quantities and is much more potent. All of this helped the drug spread nationwide, fueling the increase in related overdoses and deaths.
Fentanyl is like other opioids, such as morphine and its derivative, heroin. Both fentanyl and morphine can be used legitimately in medicine, while heroin has no legal use. Morphine is non-synthetic and derived from opium. Fentanyl is a synthetic drug. All three drugs are fast-acting, leaving users with a short but intense rush feeling, and can be highly addictive.
Short-Term Effects of Fentanyl
Someone taking fentanyl will experience feelings of euphoria and relaxation immediately, as well as a reduction in pain. Like other opioids, fentanyl binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors control how a person experiences both pain and emotion. As a result, someone taking fentanyl may experience extreme happiness immediately after taking the drug, but this feeling does not last.
Over time, someone taking fentanyl adapts to the drug and will need more and more of it to experience the same level of pain reduction or relaxation. Additional side effects include:
- problems breathing
No medication is completely safe for anyone, but the risks can differ depending on the drug and the individual. Factors such as a person’s size, weight, and health impact how fentanyl will affect them. Also, the person’s tolerance to the drug, how much they have taken, and if they have ingested other drugs will influence how fentanyl affects them.
This is one reason fentanyl is so dangerous. The drug’s potency makes even a minimal amount of it potentially deadly. Many drug dealers mix fentanyl into other drugs without the user’s knowledge, putting the person at a greater risk of overdose and death.
Drugs may contain deadly levels of fentanyl, and you wouldn’t be able to see, taste or smell it. According to the CDC, more than 150 people die daily from overdoses related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Without testing drugs with fentanyl test strips, there is no way for someone to know if a drug has been laced with fentanyl.
Long-Term Physical Effects of Fentanyl
Many chronic health conditions are associated with long-term fentanyl use. The drug causes respiratory problems and decreases lung function. The breathing of someone who overdoses on fentanyl can slow or stop because of the drug’s effect on respiration. As a result, the brain’s oxygen is reduced, causing hypoxia. Consequences of that condition include coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
There are also complications to a person’s heart or cardiovascular system that can rise from fentanyl use. Chest pain or discomfort and a slow or irregular heartbeat are common side effects of the drug. Even medically prescribed opioids may interfere with medications to manage and treat cardiovascular disease, according to recent studies from the American Heart Association.
Stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues can result from fentanyl use. Constipation is a problem and can permanently alter the colon. Others may experience nausea or vomiting. Regular use of fentanyl can affect a person’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infections. As mentioned above, fentanyl can affect breathing, resulting in a loss of oxygen to the brain. Other vital organs and their long-term function that can be impacted include the liver and kidneys.
Long-Term Psychological Effects of Fentanyl
Fentanyl is highly addictive. It enters a person’s brain much faster than other opioids. Drug abuse, whether legal or illegal, can cause severe mental health implications and co-occurring disorders. It can also alter how the body perceives pain. Some studies have shown that fentanyl has a direct and indirect effect on cognitive decline and that the misuse of this drug (and other opioids) results in a higher frequency of depression. Research shows that chronic use of fentanyl or other opioids damages a person’s verbal working memory, cognitive impulsivity (risk-taking), and flexibility (verbal fluency).
Treatment and Prevention Strategies
Rehabilitation programs and resources are available for individuals struggling with fentanyl addiction or dependence on any opioid. The most effective approach to date appears to be a combination of medication with behavioral therapies. The medicines interact with the same opioid receptors in the brain that fentanyl does but without the same detrimental effects. Addiction counseling helps individuals change their behaviors and thinking in relation to drug use. It can also help them learn healthier life and stress-management skills.
A significant harm reduction approach that can help with fentanyl overdoses is the availability of naloxone. When given right away, naloxone rapidly binds to the brain’s opioid receptors and blocks the effects of fentanyl. This can take multiple doses to halt the overdose. Other measures that have proven helpful are fentanyl test strips to determine if illicit drugs have been laced with fentanyl.
Finally, increasing education and awareness around fentanyl is critical. Of the more than 100,000 people who died of drug overdoses in 2021 in America, almost 70% involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Additionally, policy interventions from local, state, and federal governments can help in the effort to combat the fentanyl crisis across the U.S. The White House has announced steps to strengthen the government’s approach to disrupting fentanyl trafficking by building a global coalition and disrupting traffickers’ access to capital and materials from the private sector. Other efforts include expanding access to naloxone, launching a national campaign to educate young people about the dangers of fentanyl, and providing addiction treatment to those in jails and prisons.
Because of how deadly fentanyl is and how much it has increased in the illegal drug supply, it is more important than ever that the fentanyl crisis be addressed on multiple levels to mitigate the drug’s long-term consequences to people’s health and lives. Individuals, communities, and policymakers must work together to combat fentanyl use and support those whose lives have been affected by fentanyl and opioid addiction.
This effort includes ensuring that those individuals at risk of overdose can access care. Also important is to expand the distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education, as mentioned above, in efforts by the federal government.
Let Us Help You Say Goodbye To Fentanyl For Good
The long-term effects of fentanyl have proven to be devastating and far-reaching. This potent synthetic opioid has contributed significantly to the opioid crisis, causing countless deaths and wreaking havoc on individuals, families, and communities. Its high potency and addictive nature make it a particularly dangerous drug, and its long-term use can lead to severe physical and psychological consequences. The good news is Rising Phoenix was created to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are not judged but embraced throughout their recovery process.
Contact us if you or someone you know struggles with fentanyl abuse for assistance and support.