Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine, but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally.
Fentanyl’s Role in Overdose Deaths
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States. In 2017, 59.8% of opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl, compared to 14.3% in 2010.
Like morphine, fentanyl is a medicine that is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, especially after surgery. It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids (a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant). Tolerance occurs when you need a higher and/or more frequent amount of a drug to get the desired effects.
When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl is known by such names as Actiq®, Duragesic®, and Sublimaze®. Prescription 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.
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.
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.