Fentanyl Drug Facts

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.1,2 It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally. Like morphine, it is a medicine that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery.3 It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids.4 Tolerance occurs when you need a higher and/or more frequent amount of a drug to get the desired effects.


In its prescription form, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®.4,5


Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States. In 2017, 59.8 percent of opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl compared to 14.3 percent in 2010.


How do people use fentanyl?

When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be given as a shot, a patch that is put on a person’s skin, or as lozenges that are sucked like cough drops.6


The illegally used fentanyl most often associated with recent overdoses is made in labs. This synthetic fentanyl is sold illegally as a powder, dropped onto blotter paper, put in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like other prescription opioids.7


Some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. This is because it takes very little to produce a high with fentanyl, making it a cheaper option. This is especially risky when people taking drugs don’t realize they might contain fentanyl as a cheap but dangerous additive. They might be taking stronger opioids than their bodies are used to and can be more likely to overdose. To learn more about the mixture of fentanyl into other drugs, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Drug Facts on fentanyl.

How does fentanyl affect the brain?

Can you overdose on fentanyl?

How can a fentanyl overdose be treated?

Can fentanyl use lead to addiction?

How is fentanyl addiction treated?


 

Points to Remember

  • Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. In its prescription form it is prescribed for pain, but fentanyl is also made illegally.

  • Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths.

  • Illegal fentanyl is sold in the following forms: as a powder, dropped on blotter paper like small candies, in eye droppers or nasal sprays, or made into pills that look like real prescription opioids.

  • Illegal fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and MDMA. This is especially dangerous because people are often unaware that fentanyl has been added.

  • Fentanyl works by binding to the body's opioid receptors, which are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. Its effects include extreme happiness, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, tolerance, addiction, respiratory depression and arrest, unconsciousness, coma, and death.

  • The high potency of fentanyl greatly increases risk of overdose, especially if a person who uses drugs is unaware that a powder or pill contains it. They can underestimate the dose of opioids they are taking, resulting in overdose.

  • Naloxone is a medicine that can be given to a person to reverse a fentanyl overdose. Multiple naloxone doses might be necessary because of fentanyl’s potency.

  • Medication with behavioral therapies has been shown to be effective in treating people with an addiction to fentanyl and other opioids.


 

References

  1. Volpe DA, Tobin GAM, Mellon RD, et al. Uniform assessment and ranking of opioid Mu receptor binding constants for selected opioid drugs. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2011;59(3):385-390. doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2010.12.007

  2. Higashikawa Y, Suzuki S. Studies on 1-(2-phenethyl)-4-(N-propionylanilino)piperidine (fentanyl) and its related compounds. VI. Structure-analgesic activity relationship for fentanyl, methyl-substituted fentanyls and other analogues. Forensic Toxicol. 2008;26(1):1-5. doi:10.1007/s11419-007-0039-1

  3. Nelson L, Schwaner R. Transdermal fentanyl: Pharmacology and toxicology. J Med Toxicol. 2009;5(4):230-241. doi:10.1007/BF03178274

  4. Garnock-Jones KP. Fentanyl Buccal Soluble Film: A Review in Breakthrough Cancer Pain. Clin Drug Investig. 2016;36(5):413-419. doi:10.1007/s40261-016-0394-y

  5. Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section, Office of Diversion Control, Drug Enforcement Administration. Fentanyl Fact Sheet. March 2015. http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/fentanyl.pdf.

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs. Transfer of drugs and other chemicals into human milk. Pediatrics. 2001;108(3):776-789.

  7. Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section, Office of Diversion Control, Drug Enforcement Administrati

  8. on. Acetyl fentanyl Fact Sheet. July 2015. http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/acetylfentanyl.pdf.

  9. Gutstein H, Akil H. Opioid Analgesics. In: Goodman & Gilman’s the Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. 11th ed. McGraw-Hill; 2006:547-590.

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