Fentanyl is a powerful opioid pain medication that has recently made news due to famous people who have abused it and experienced fatal overdose. However, what these stories leave out is the fact that there are other side effects and risks aside from overdose that can have equally dire results for an individual engaged in fentanyl abuse.
Because fentanyl is a highly addictive substance, it can be difficult for individuals who abuse it to stop using it. Subsequently, over the long-term, more complex side effects can develop based on the way the drug behaves in the body. These side effects can lead to a variety of kinds of organ damage, illness, and other physical and mental side effects that can be as bad as the damage caused by a one-time overdose.
Fentanyl History and Use
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid medication made to be similar to morphine, the primary, natural opioid made from the opium poppy. According to News Medical, the drug was originally produced in 1959 and used as a powerful anesthetic in the following decades. In the 1990s, the development of a transdermal fentanyl patch made it possible to use it in treating chronic pain as well, including cancer pain.
Fentanyl is much stronger than morphine by 50-100 times, making it extremely potent and potentially dangerous for use. Nevertheless, it also provides unmatched pain relief, making it useful in dealing with severe chronic or post-surgical pain. However, the drug’s potency also results in a potent, euphoric high that sometimes leads people to abuse the drug, whether through illicit means or through misuse of a legitimate prescription.
Fentanyl has become popular for diversion from pharmacies and other legal pathways for use as a recreational drug. As a synthetic, it is also reproduced in illicit operations for street sale. Because it is so powerful, it can result in a high percentage of overdoses and fatalities by those who use it recreationally. In fact, its growth in popularity as a drug of abuse recently led to an increase in overdose deaths based on increased use; twice as many people died in 2014 as in 2013, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Partly because of this, overdose from prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in this country.
As an opioid, fentanyl is also highly addictive. Abuse of the drug can lead quickly to tolerance – when the drug loses the ability to produce the same effect as it did originally – and dependence. When tolerance and dependence lead to misuse of the drug, such as increased dosages or frequency of use, the person can become addicted to the drug, losing the ability to control the amount taken or to stop using the drug. Regardless of whether the person has just started abusing the drug or has been using it addictively for a long period of time, there are some severe side effects that can result.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is dangerous even on first use because it can severely compromise breathing even at relatively small doses; this is because of its extremely high potency. As a result, it can cause overdose more quickly and easily than heroin. Sometimes, the drug is also mixed with other sedative drugs like heroin or stimulant drugs like cocaine, which can both increase the risks and complicate treatment of a fentanyl overdose.
Aside from the potential for overdose death, side effects of fentanyl abuse include:
- Drowsiness and sedation
- Respiratory slowing or cessation of breathing
- Nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
- Heart arrhythmia
- Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain
Long-term abuse of fentanyl can cause various types of damage to the body, including potential brain and other damage resulting from hypoxia. In addition, organ systems can be damaged by fentanyl abuse, including:
- Cardiovascular systems
- The liver (according to the National Library of Medicine)
- Digestive system
Abuse can also lead to some severe mental effects, including:
In addition, long-term abuse of fentanyl can lead to addiction, as described above, which greatly increases the chances of overdose.
Reversing the Damage: Is It Possible?
As described by WebMD, there is a drug that can reverse the severe effects of a fentanyl overdose if it is caught quickly enough. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that quickly counters the effect of fentanyl in the body, preventing the respiratory system from shutting down as a result of overdose. However, with an opioid as powerful as fentanyl, the results may depend greatly on the individual in question and the dosage consumed.
Otherwise, to some degree, damage to the body caused by long-term fentanyl abuse can be reversed. However, organ system damage is unlikely to be reversed, especially when the result of hypoxia. For this reason, it is important to intervene in suspected cases of fentanyl abuse as quickly as possible to stop the more severe, long-term effects from developing.
Through detox from fentanyl, the body can begin to return control to its inherent neurochemical systems. Detox itself is not likely to be dangerous or fatal; however, there are withdrawal symptoms during detox that can make the process extremely uncomfortable. With medical support, this process can be greatly eased, making it more likely that the individual will be able to complete detox and enter treatment without relapsing to fentanyl use and reinitiating the potential for developing serious side effects.
Specialized, research-based treatment programs can help individuals who are struggling with fentanyl abuse have the best chance for completion of detox and treatment. Through these programs, therapies shown to provide the best chance of recovery from abuse of fentanyl are applied to give clients the skills and confidence needed to interrupt triggers and drug-seeking behaviors, increasing the likelihood that they will avoid relapse.
Therapies and treatments include:
- Cognitive therapies to recognize and manage high-risk situations and triggers
- Social therapies to provide a supportive network of friends and family
- Vocational therapy to provide security and self-confidence that encourage abstinence
- Peer support groups that provide understanding, resources, and accountability
- Physical and nutritional support to help the body become stronger
Through these and other treatments, the individual can learn to manage the symptoms of substance abuse or addiction and increase the likelihood of long-term recovery, enabling a stronger future through avoidance of severe or dangerous side effects that result from abusing fentanyl.
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