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What is Fentanyl and why is it dangerous?

Fentanyl is an extremely potent synthetic opioid with similar properties to morphine, though its effects are 100 times stronger. It’s a controlled prescription drug, commonly used to help with severe pain as a result of injury or surgery. Fentanyl can also be used to treat the symptoms of chronic pain and is also regularly given to people who have already built up a tolerance to other weaker opioids. Like many substances, it is often obtained and sold illegally.

When used on prescription, fentanyl is referred to by its brand name Actiq or Sublimaze. When bought illegally, you may hear it referred to as Goodfellas, Jackpot, Murder 8, and Tango & Cash.

What are opioids?

Opioids are drugs which are derived from the opium poppy. While some opioid drugs are made from the natural materials of the plant, synthetic drugs like fentanyl, are manufactured in labs.

Because synthetic opioids are now much easier to get hold of, there has been a significant rise in the number of fentanyl-related deaths worldwide.

How is fentanyl used?

Fentanyl can be administered by a doctor via injection, skin patch or a lozenge as part of a supervised treatment plan. However, when being sold illegally, fentanyl is most often found in powder form, dropped onto blotter paper, kept in eye droppers and nasal sprays, or pressed into pills that mimic the appearance of prescription opioid pills.

Drug dealers often mix fentanyl with other illicit drugs as a way of increasing their profit margins when selling. This is because it takes very little fentanyl to produce an intense high. However, this can be especially risky because users are unaware of what these substances contain and may experience dangerous reactions as a result.

How does fentanyl affect the brain?

Like many other opioid drugs, fentanyl works by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors, which control pain and emotion. After long-term fentanyl abuse, the brain stops releasing chemicals like dopamine, and instead relies on the drug to produce these hormones. This diminished sensitivity makes it hard to experience pleasure from anything other than fentanyl. When you become addicted to fentanyl, seeking and using the drug becomes a compulsive obsession. Some of the most common side effects of using fentanyl include:

  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Disorientation
  • Constipation
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sedation

Can you overdose on fentanyl?

Yes, it is possible to overdose on fentanyl. An overdose occurs when your system can’t handle the presence of a foreign substance in the body and reacts negatively as a result, often producing life-threatening symptoms. An overdose of fentanyl can cause your breathing to slow down completely, limiting the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. This is known as hypoxia which can cause brain damage and even death.

How is a fentanyl overdose treated?

As fentanyl is routinely laced with other substances and sold illegally, it is difficult to know exactly what it contains. This uncertainty increases the risk of experiencing adverse reactions or a fatal overdose.

Naloxone is a medication used in the event of fentanyl overdose and should be administered as soon as possible. It works by also binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of fentanyl or any other opioid drug. However, because fentanyl is incredibly strong, and it may require more than one dose.

Fentanyl addiction and withdrawal

Developing an addiction to fentanyl can happen very quickly due to its potency. Even those who have been prescribed fentanyl by their doctors are at risk of developing a physical dependence on it. Physical dependence means that your body needs the drug in order to function normally. The absence of fentanyl can cause agonising withdrawal symptoms as the body tries to adjust without it.

If you’ve been using fentanyl, even short-term, and suddenly stop, you may experience some adverse reactions as a result. These include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Shivers
  • Uncontrollable leg spasms
  • Severe cravings

Fentanyl withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant. It’s during this stage that many users relapse as they are unable to cope without medical intervention

How is fentanyl addiction treated?

Fentanyl addiction is treated in the same way as other opioid addictions and usually involves a combination of medical detox and traditional or holistic addiction therapies.

Detox: During medical detox, you will be prescribed other opioids to help relieve the symptoms of fentanyl withdrawal. However, the treatment plan is supervised by a medical professional to avoid any adverse reactions. The medications typically used for treatment of fentanyl withdrawal include buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. These drugs bind to the same opioid receptors in the brain as fentanyl, reducing cravings and unpleasant symptoms.

Therapy: One-to-one counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy have been proven to be extremely effective in the treatment of fentanyl addiction. These therapies work to help individuals overcome the psychological aspects of addiction and encourage them to work on problematic behaviours that could be contributing to their addiction.

Getting help for fentanyl addiction

If you’ve been abusing fentanyl or are concerned about someone you know, CATCH Recovery London is here to help.

Our clinic in South West London clinic offers addiction assessments, outpatient addiction rehab and therapy, residential rehab referrals, online addiction therapy, recovery yoga and an exceptional aftercare programme.

If you need rehab treatment but don’t live in South East England, you may find our Telehealth services more ideal. Telehealth allows our clients to receive help and support for alcoholism remotely on platforms such as Zoom, Skype or Teams.

Alternatively, we also provide referrals to rehabs in other areas in the UK and Ireland as well as clinics in Sweden and The Netherlands.