Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid (narcotic). It’s a class of psychoactive drugs that help relieve severe or chronic pain. It depresses the body’s respiratory center, suppresses the cough reflex and constricts the pupils. It can relieve pain and sedate someone within minutes, although it has a short duration of effect of just 30-90 minutes.
Fentanyl is produced in laboratories and designed to mimic natural opioids like heroin, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine. It’s a highly potent pain medication that often comes with side effects, including the possibility of forming an addiction. In fact, it’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and as little as 1-2 grains can be deadly. In a medical setting, it is typically used to treat symptoms of severe or chronic pain associated with post-surgery or advanced cancer symptoms.
How does fentanyl affect the brain?
Fentanyl is also easy to produce illegally, which makes it one of the key culprits in the United States opioid epidemic. As with other opioids, fentanyl binds to the opioid receptors found throughout the brain and body. This floods your brain’s reward centers with dopamine, an important chemical that influences mood and feelings of reward and motivation.
Dopamine also occurs naturally, but on a much lower scale than when it’s triggered by fentanyl.
A fentanyl-induced dopamine rush creates a sense of euphoria and extreme relaxation, so it’s easy to understand why someone may develop an addiction. An addicted brain craves the reward of the substance and over time requires larger doses to garner the same result. Long-term addiction can have severe outcomes like brain damage or even death.
Here are additional key points about opioid effects on the brain:
- Opioids decrease your brain’s natural production of norepinephrine, which depresses the central nervous system. This results in a decreased rate of breathing, decreased heart rate and loss of consciousness (and could lead to coma or even death).
- It not only reduces functions of the respiratory and cardiac systems, but it also reduces your body’s temperature. Low body temperature may lead to a dangerous medical condition known as hypothermia. This means your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it. Hypothermia is a severe medical emergency that, if left untreated, can lead to brain damage and cardiac failure.
- Chronic, long-term use of fentanyl and opioids may deteriorate the white matter in your brain. This can lead to behavioral changes like how you experience emotions, react to stress and make decisions.
What does fentanyl do to your mind and body in the long term?
Long-term fentanyl use affects the body by developing addiction, dependence and tolerance. Tolerance exacerbates the addiction and leads to increased drug-seeking behaviors to find and use larger quantities of the drug, like:
- Claiming more drugs are needed to replace a lost or stolen prescription
- Misrepresenting symptoms
- Frequent visits to multiple doctors (e.g., doctor shopping)
Increased opioid tolerance acts as a depressant, which can slow the body’s natural systems (e.g., respiratory and cardiac symptoms). Over time, this disruption leads to very serious circumstances like stroke, heart failure or even death.
How is fentanyl prescribed?
When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl may be administered as an injection, skin patch, nasal spray or lozenge. If a person is addicted to fentanyl, it may also be prescribed to support a medically supervised drug detox. In this unique and carefully managed scenario, it can help reduce drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
How does fentanyl detox work?
Opioids like fentanyl can lead to serious complications with the heart during withdrawal. This is the main reason why a supervised detox program is so strongly recommended for those who want to overcome their addiction.
Opioid withdrawal can lead to severe pain and discomfort. Using a pharmaceutical equivalent slowly and carefully helps to alleviate the most egregious withdrawal symptoms like heart palpitations and a decreased heart rate. These symptoms occur because their body has become used to employing opioids to stabilize their vital functions, including heart rate. Without the presence of drugs, these addicted individuals often experience withdrawal symptoms like palpitations and cardiac arrhythmia.
Fentanyl detox can take place at the inpatient treatment program at Alpine Recovery Lodge. During the initial stages of detoxification, your doctor may replace fentanyl with medications that are FDA-approved to treat opioid addiction like buprenorphine, methadone or suboxone. The dosage of these medications is gradually reduced throughout your detox period until you are no longer physically dependent on them. Depending on your level of addiction and how your body responds to the medication, a medically supervised fentanyl detox can last several weeks or more. This, along with around-the-clock monitoring, helps people have a safe, successful and comfortable recovery experience from their addiction.
The medical professionals at Alpine Recovery Lodge strongly discourage anyone from trying to detox from fentanyl (or any opioid drug) on their own, as doing so can have life-threatening consequences.
Fentanyl is a short-acting opioid, which means withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as 8 hours after the last use and may last up to 10 days. Common fentanyl withdrawal symptoms include:
- Hot or cold flashes
- Tearing eyes
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches and pains
- Nausea and vomiting
- Insomnia and anxiety
What are the side effects of fentanyl?
Fentanyl affects everyone differently. It depends on a person’s size, weight and overall health. Side effects also depend on the amount taken, whether it’s taken in combination with other drugs, and whether the person has developed any tolerances.
Though not an exhaustive list, here are the more common side effects that can occur with fentanyl:
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Increased perspiration
- Loss of appetite
What are common signs and symptoms of overdose?
Fentanyl abuse is one of the fastest-growing drug problems in America. When made illegally, it’s commonly added to other substances, especially heroin, to increase their potency and lower their cost. Unfortunately, this is when the drug is most deadly. In fact, fentanyl is responsible for more overdoses in the US than almost any other drug.
An overdose can happen if a person has overloaded their body with medications, alcohol, illicit drugs or any combination thereof. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 35,000 people died from synthetic opioid overdose in 2019, and those numbers continue to rise. Common signs and symptoms of fentanyl (or opioid) overdose include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Unresponsive to outside stimulus
- Does not wake easily
- Awake but unable to speak
- Slow or erratic breathing
- No breathing
- Lips and fingernails turn blue or purple
- Skin turns bluish purple (lighter-skinned people) or grayish/ashen (darker-skinned people)
- Limp body
- Cold and clammy skin
If you suspect someone is experiencing any of the above symptoms of opioid overdose, call 9-1-1 immediately and ensure the individual has an open airway that is free of obstructions (e.g., vomit) by laying them on their side.
When a person overdoses on fentanyl or another opioid, their veins can collapse, which means their bloodstream becomes filled with the drug. This suppresses normal blood flow throughout the body. Oxygen flow also becomes limited, which may lead to permanent brain damage or seizures. Opioid overdoses can also cause pulmonary edema, which is a fluid leak that fills up the lungs. This fluid can not only make it difficult to breathe, but it can also lead to choking and vomiting.
Two things every parent needs to know about fentanyl
It’s your job to keep your child safe. Here are the most important things you need to understand about fentanyl:
- Naloxone (Narcan) will work in case of overdose, but extra doses may be needed. Narcan is a nasal spray used to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency.
- Getting your child into a treatment program is crucial for recovery. If you need help, please call Alpine Recovery Lodge. We are ready to help your loved ones with their addiction recovery.
If you or a loved one is ready to take the first step toward lasting recovery and want to learn more about other prescription drugs that can help you detox safely and comfortably, call Alpine Recovery Lodge at 801-874-3056 to learn more. Our licensed therapists and counselors are skilled and compassionate professionals dedicated to providing individualized, effective care in a safe setting. We use the latest modalities in addiction treatment, which means long-lasting success for you.