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What is Fentanyl and How to Treat Fentanyl Addiction

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on March 7, 2024

One of the most dangerous prescription opioids sweeping the nation in a devastating epidemic is fentanyl. Its existence has created a public health crisis in the United States as more and more people who use drugs become affected by the dangers it poses to their daily lives.

For the family members and loved ones of those who struggle with addiction, it’s helpful to have resources that can create avenues to have tough conversations with the people you love who are living with this disease.

In this post, we’ll share how to spot fentanyl use, what fentanyl addiction treatment looks like, along with tips on how to support someone in your life who is struggling with opioid addiction of any kind and the best ways to take action for them.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that, when used in high amounts, can be life-threatening. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was initially designed to treat severe pain in cancer patients in a controlled medical environment because fentanyl is highly potent and addicting. It can be extremely dangerous to use in any drug form in a non-medical setting.

Fentanyl has caused a drastic increase in drug overdoses and deaths in recent years, particularly in young adults across the nation. From 2020 to 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from an overdose, with over 64% of those overdose deaths due to synthetic opioid use.

There is a large amount of illicitly manufactured fentanyl on the streets and drug dealers are mixing it into other drugs. Fentanyl has been found in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and prescription pills to increase their potency and addictiveness; it is nearly 100 times stronger than morphine. In most cases, the user may not even be aware of its presence in the drug they are consuming, which has resulted in many accidental overdoses.

Fentanyl is odorless and has no taste, making it difficult to determine if any substance contains it. In its powder form, fentanyl resembles most common powdered drugs, like cocaine or heroin, but can also be made into pills that resemble prescription opioids or other party drugs. In its liquid form, fentanyl is commonly used in eye drops or dropped onto small candies.

The DEA states that the majority of these illicit synthetic opioids come from outside of the United States in the form of pressed counterfeit prescription pills, like Xanax, Percocet, and Vicodin.

The effects of fentanyl include pain relief, relaxation, drowsy or dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory distress, particularly by reducing breathing rates to dangerously low levels. The drug’s high potency makes the effects come on fairly quickly, but also greatly increases the chances of the user to overdose.

How to Determine the Signs of Fentanyl Use

If you feel your loved one’s life is at risk and that they may be using fentanyl (knowingly or otherwise), there are ways you can determine the signs of fentanyl use.

Here are some of the physical signs of fentanyl use to watch for:

  • Chest pain or heavy breathing
  • Confusion and disoriented
  • Extreme fatigue and dizziness
  • Fever or chills

Along with the physical signs, there are some emotional and behavioral signs of fentanyl use that a person may display without realizing it. These include:

  • Social anxiety and withdrawal
  • Lack of interest in physical appearance or wellness
  • Fatigue and disinterest in activity

As a close friend or family member, you likely know their physical limitations, energy levels, and general disposition in various social settings.

Keep a close eye on how they react to social and work environments if they have a sudden decrease in physical activity or display a lack of hygiene or taking care of themselves.

The more addicted a person becomes, the more their behavior will change. It’s difficult to catch the signs of fentanyl use because it can manifest in different ways, and you can’t always narrow it down to one problem. Pay attention to behavioral patterns or recurrent symptoms that have recently caught your eye and feel unusual or problematic.

Treating a Fentanyl Addiction

Because of its potency, fentanyl is highly addictive and requires specialized treatment. Treating any addiction is best done in a care facility, removed from the temptations of drug use, and with access to the resources necessary to detox in a stable environment.

Successfully treating a fentanyl addiction requires the help of medical professionals at a specialized treatment center. This type of environment provides a safe, secure place for people to detox while having access to emotional support and addressing the uncomfortable physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Providing Support for Your Loved One

The conversation around fentanyl use and its threat to people’s lives is a necessary one. Creating an action plan is a positive, effective way to ensure you are doing everything you can to support your loved one as they find ways to seek treatment and help for their addiction.

If you know someone who is struggling with addiction and uses opioids in non-medical situations, there are suggestions you can make to ensure their safety and to help support their road to recovery.

Confronting Someone Addicted to Fentanyl

If you know that a loved one is addicted to fentanyl, it is important to make sure to not enable them and to set boundaries.

Knowing the Signs of a Fentanyl Overdose

It’s most likely not going to happen when you are around, but it’s still a good idea to be able to identify opioid overdose symptoms. These include:

  • “Pinpoint,” or small pupils
  • Loss of consciousness, sleepiness
  • Slow breathing or loss of breath
  • Limp body and clammy skin

In the event of an overdose or if you suspect one, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Make Sure Naloxone is Available

Naloxone is a medication used to reverse an opioid overdose. It can reverse and block the effects of opioids, including fentanyl, heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone on the brain to restore breathing after life-threatening respiratory depression.

Naloxone can be given as a nasal spray, injected into a muscle, under the skin, or into a vein. The nasal sprays are the preferred method because they can be used by family members, loved ones, or bystanders who haven’t had any training or experience using them. In many cases, it can save someone’s life in the event of an overdose.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment Options

Finding appropriate addiction treatment is crucial, as it helps a person place themselves in a safe environment surrounded by medical professionals with their best interests at heart. 

One should never attempt to undergo the fentanyl withdrawal process alone, as this could lead to unforeseen side effects and dangers. It is highly recommended that individuals or families seek out fentanyl addiction treatment programs with a medical detox so that doctors and nurses can monitor the client and reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms to make the process as safe and comfortable as possible. Additionally, solo withdrawal statistically leads to relapse and continued use, making it not only dangerous but likely to fail. In seeking an appropriate group of individuals to have one’s back, a person can maximize the effectiveness of their treatment plan, and get back to doing what they love sooner.

A common treatment program would start with a medical detox (for active users), followed by residential treatment. Once complete, the individual would step down into an aftercare program that would include outpatient treatment programs and sober living. For more information, please call 877.799.1985 and a member of our care team will be able to assist in making a decision about treatment.

The Fentanyl Epidemic is Real

We know the overdose rate in young people nearly doubled in the years leading up to the pandemic. As young adults face more adversity and struggle with their own mental health, it’s likely some will seek street drugs to cope with their lives.

As fentanyl and other opioids become more prevalent in the drugs people are regularly accessing across the nation, continuous education on the dangers of using it has never been more essential.

In Los Angeles alone, there has been a significant increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths, especially among young adults. Countless news stories are highlighting the burden and dangers of fentanyl in our community. We’ve seen a spike in fentanyl overdose deaths in teenagers who unsuspectedly purchased party drugs laced with fentanyl, urging caution to parents to educate their children on this dangerous drug and know the signs of opioid drug use and overdose.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment at Clear Behavioral Health

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. Because of this, fentanyl addiction, dependency, and withdrawal require professional intervention to manage. At Clear Behavioral Health, we specialize in medical detox, drug rehabilitation, and fentanyl addiction treatment. If you or a loved one are in need of help regarding the various types of opioids, call us today and speak with one of our dedicated team members.

The opioid crisis has destroyed families all across the world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Please don’t hesitate to reach out in order to help you begin your recovery journey.

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