Drug overdose deaths in the United States have reached crisis levels. In 2021, over 107,000 Americans died of drug overdose — and more than 70 percent involved opioids.
The opioid drug fentanyl has been a driving force of record-breaking overdose death rates amid the ongoing opioid crisis, largely because fentanyl is often added to batches of illicit drugs.
What Is The Drug Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a fully synthetic opioid drug. It is legally manufactured and prescribed to treat chronic or severe pain, but it is also made illicitly — and those forms can be more dangerous.
Why Is Fentanyl So Dangerous?
One of the primary characteristics of fentanyl that makes it dangerous is its potency, or strength. On average, fentanyl is 80 to 100 times stronger than the prescription opioid morphine.
Even small amounts of fentanyl can be lethal, particularly if you are someone who has never used opioids, or has not built up a tolerance to opioids.
What Factors Are Contributing To The Fentanyl Overdose Crisis?
Experts say that the rapid rise in the number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl in the United States is a crisis that is influenced by a number of factors.
Those factors include:
Illicit Drug Use
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has warned that fentanyl is increasingly being added to other illicit drugs that are commonly bought on the street.
Fentanyl is manufactured in the form of a white powder that can easily be added to other drugs. But this is not always communicated to the person who is buying the drugs.
This addition of fentanyl to various street drugs, including non-opioids, can put a person who is not seeking fentanyl at risk for an accidental drug overdose.
Illicit Forms Of Fentanyl
Pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl is regulated and can be safely used to treat pain when administered as prescribed by a doctor. Illicit fentanyl, on the other hand, is not.
Fentanyl that is illegally manufactured is subject to contain an unknown concoction of ingredients and may be much stronger and more dangerous than legally prescribed fentanyl.
Another driving factor in the spike in opioid overdose deaths is the combined use of fentanyl with other drugs, particularly other central nervous system depressants.
Benzodiazepines, for example, as well as alcohol, sleeping pills, and other sedatives can enhance the effects of opioids like fentanyl and increase the risk of fatal overdose.
Fentanyl can also be dangerous to combine with non-depressants, like psychostimulants and amphetamines.
Cost Of Fentanyl
The average street price of fentanyl is cheaper than that of other illicit drugs like heroin. It’s also cheaper and easier to produce.
Cutting fentanyl with other illicit drugs, like meth, can be cost-effective for drug manufacturers and drug dealers.
Because of its potency, the use of fentanyl can also be a cheaper way for people with opioid dependence to get high or stave off opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Substance Misuse And Addiction
Opioid addiction, or opioid use disorder, is a risk factor for opioid overdose.
If you are compulsively using opioids, particularly illicit opioids, this puts you at increased risk for taking opioids laced with fentanyl, or using a more dangerous batch of illicit fentanyl.
Is Fentanyl Overdose Always Lethal?
No. Although fentanyl is a risk factor for fatal overdose, a fentanyl-involved overdose can be treated and reversed with the quick administration of the drug naloxone (Narcan).
Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that can be administered intramuscularly (injected into the muscle), or intranasally (i.e. Narcan nasal spray).
What Are Ways To Prevent Fentanyl Overdose?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health agencies have endorsed harm reduction initiatives, in addition to abstinence, to help prevent fatal overdose.
Overdose prevention strategies amid the ongoing opioid epidemic include:
- avoiding illicit drugs
- having naloxone on-hand
- testing illicit drugs for fentanyl (e.g. fentanyl test strips)
- do not use illicit drugs alone
- get help for a drug problem (i.e. addiction treatment)
Getting Help For Drug Abuse
Not everyone who uses illicit drugs is addicted. But overdose is a greater risk among those who are, largely because they’ll be using street drugs more often.
Addiction treatment programs and other behavioral health care interventions can be an effective way to address an illicit drug problem and help someone avoid dangerous illicit drugs.
A treatment program for opioid use disorder may involve detoxification, medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, and group therapy among other treatment services.
Substance Use Treatment At Bedrock Recovery Center
Bedrock Recovery Center is a treatment provider in Massachusetts that offers treatment programs for people with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders.
We offer detoxification, residential rehab, and other forms of recovery support.
If you’re concerned about someone using illicit or prescription drugs, call our helpline today to learn more about our leading substance abuse treatment options.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Overdose Data Overview
The New York Times — Overdose Deaths Continue Rising, With Fentanyl and Meth Key Culprits
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – Overdose Prevention Strategy
U.S. Department of Justice: Drug Enforcement Administration — Counterfeit Pills Fact Sheet
U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Fentanyl