March 22, 2024

Fentanyl: Side Effects, Overdose Risk, & Treatment

image representing fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s available both as a prescription medication and on the illicit market. The intense potency of the drug makes it highly addictive, and it’s also the primary contributor to fatal overdoses in the United States. Read on to learn more about the side effects of fentanyl and find out how to connect with compassionate and evidence-based treatment.

What Is Fentanyl?

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Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is about 50 times more powerful than heroin. While fentanyl may be indicated to treat severe pain, illicitly manufactured fentanyl is a growing concern in the U.S. The alarming rise in fentanyl-related issues is largely due to illicit fentanyl, which is often mixed with other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, as well as other opioids like heroin. Increasingly, fentanyl is being abused in combination with xylazine, a sedative used in veterinary medicine.

The Fentanyl Crisis

Beginning in 2013, the United States witnessed the emergence of the fentanyl crisis, signaling the opioid epidemic’s third wave. Prior waves had seen the rampant misuse of prescription opioids, followed by a surge in heroin use. However, the arrival of fentanyl introduced unprecedented challenges. Fentanyl’s potency triggered a sharp increase in fatal overdoses, significantly contributing to the nation’s public health crisis.

Fentanyl’s infiltration into the drug market inflamed the existing opioid epidemic due to its potent effects and the ease with which it can be mixed with other substances. Often, people using opioids were unaware of the presence of fentanyl in their drugs, leading to an increased risk of overdose.

As the crisis evolved, the fourth wave of the opioid epidemic took shape, characterized by the combination of fentanyl with stimulants like cocaine and meth. This lethal cocktail also amplifies the risk of overdose. The concurrent use of opioids and stimulants, known as speedballing, presents a dual threat: the depressive effects of opioids and the excitatory effects of stimulants place significant strain on the body, especially the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. This drug combination increases the unpredictability of overdose symptoms and complicates emergency responses, making it more difficult to save lives.

The ongoing battle against the fentanyl crisis and the broader opioid epidemic requires a concerted effort from all sectors of society, including healthcare professionals, policymakers, community organizations, and individuals. By promoting collaboration and adopting a comprehensive approach to addiction, we can work toward mitigating the devastating effects of this crisis and paving the way for healing and recovery in affected communities.

man resting head on chin representing Fentanyl

Fentanyl Side Effects

These are the side effects most commonly associated with fentanyl:

Respiratory depression

One of the most serious effects of fentanyl is respiratory depression, where breathing becomes slow and shallow. This can lead to hypoxia, a condition where the body is deprived of adequate oxygen. Respiratory depression can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.

Drowsiness and sedation

Fentanyl can cause drowsiness and sedation, impairing cognitive function and motor skills. It’s inadvisable to operate heavy machinery or drive while taking fentanyl.

Nausea and vomiting

Gastrointestinal side effects like nausea and vomiting are common side effects of fentanyl use, especially when initiating treatment or with dose adjustments. Anti-emetic medications may be prescribed to alleviate these symptoms.

Constipation

Fentanyl can cause constipation by slowing down bowel movements. Increase fluid intake, dietary fiber, and physical activity to mitigate this side effect. Laxatives may also be prescribed if necessary.

Hypotension

Fentanyl can cause low blood pressure, leading to dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting. Avoid sudden changes in position, such as standing up quickly, to minimize the risk of falls.

Urinary retention

Difficulty urinating or urinary retention may occur with fentanyl use, especially in seniors or those with pre-existing urinary tract conditions. Prompt medical attention is required if urinary retention occurs.

Tolerance and dependence

Prolonged use of fentanyl can lead to the development of tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same pain-relieving effects. Additionally, dependence can develop, leading to withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation of the drug.

Overdose and death

Accidental overdose is a significant risk associated with fentanyl use, especially when taken in higher doses than prescribed or in combination with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines. Overdose can result in respiratory failure and death if not treated promptly with naloxone (Narcan).

Cognitive effects

Fentanyl may cause cognitive impairment, including confusion, disorientation, and hallucinations, especially in seniors or those with underlying cognitive disorders.

Cardiovascular effects

Fentanyl can affect heart rate and rhythm, leading to palpitations, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat), or bradycardia (slow heartbeat). Individuals with pre-existing heart conditions should be closely monitored while taking fentanyl.

Anyone who is prescribed fentanyl should be aware of these potential side effects and should promptly report any concerns to their healthcare provider. Close monitoring and adherence to prescribed dosages can help minimize the risk of adverse outcomes.

image representing side effect of fentanyl

Fentanyl Overdose Symptoms

Recognizing the signs of a fentanyl overdose could be life-saving. Symptoms of fentanyl overdose include:

  • Respiratory depression: Fentanyl overdose often leads to severe respiratory depression, where breathing becomes slow, shallow, or even stops altogether. This is the most critical symptom of overdose and requires immediate medical attention.
  • Pinpoint pupils: One hallmark sign of opioid overdose, including fentanyl, is pinpoint pupils (miosis), where the pupils constrict to very small sizes. In some cases, though, pupils may be dilated due to hypoxia or other factors.
  • Extreme drowsiness or unconsciousness: Individuals experiencing a fentanyl overdose may become extremely drowsy or lose consciousness altogether. They may be unresponsive to stimuli and difficult to awaken.
  • Cold and clammy skin: Skin may feel cold and clammy to the touch, indicating poor circulation and decreased oxygenation of tissues.
  • Bluish lips and fingernails: Cyanosis, characterized by bluish discoloration of the lips, fingernails, or skin, may occur due to inadequate oxygenation of blood.
  • Weak pulse: A weak or irregular pulse may be present due to cardiovascular depression associated with fentanyl overdose.
  • Confusion or disorientation: Some people may exhibit confusion, disorientation, or agitation as a result of decreased oxygen supply to the brain.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Many people using fentanyl experience nausea and vomiting, although this symptom is less common during an overdose than other opioid side effects.
  • Seizures: In severe cases of overdose, seizures or convulsions may manifest due to oxygen deprivation and neurological dysfunction.
  • Coma: Fentanyl overdose can progress to a state of deep unconsciousness or coma, where the person remains unresponsive to external stimuli and requires immediate medical intervention.
  • Respiratory arrest: Without prompt medical treatment, fentanyl overdose can lead to respiratory arrest, with breathing stopping completely. This is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate administration of naloxone and supportive measures such as artificial ventilation.

Seek emergency medical assistance if you suspect that someone is experiencing a fentanyl overdose. Early intervention can significantly improve the chances of survival and prevent long-term complications associated with opioid overdose.

Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction

The first step in treating fentanyl addiction involves withdrawing from fentanyl under medical supervision. This process helps manage fentanyl withdrawal symptoms and ensures safety and comfort throughout the detox period. Fentanyl withdrawal addresses the issue of physical dependence on opioids. Ongoing inpatient or outpatient treatment tackles the psychological aspect of fentanyl addiction.

MAT (medication-assisted treatment) involves the use of medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone to help reduce cravings and prevent relapse. These medications can be beneficial in managing opioid withdrawal symptoms and supporting long-term recovery.

Medication-assisted treatment is always most effective when combined with behavioral interventions. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), CM (contingency management), and MI (motivational interviewing) are effective in treating fentanyl addiction. These therapies help people identify and change negative thought patterns, develop coping skills, and address the issues underpinning their addictions.

Participating in support groups such as NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or SMART Recovery can provide peer support and encouragement during the recovery process. These groups offer a sense of community and understanding among people with lived experience of fentanyl addiction.

Many people with fentanyl addictions also have co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or anxiety. Dual diagnosis treatment addresses both addiction and underlying mental health issues concurrently, ensuring comprehensive care and improved treatment outcomes.

Holistic approaches like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and art therapy can complement traditional addiction treatment methods by promoting overall well-being and stress management.

Developing a comprehensive aftercare plan is essential for maintaining sobriety and preventing relapse after completing formal treatment for fentanyl addiction. Aftercare may include ongoing therapy, support group participation, regular medical check-ups, and healthy lifestyle changes.

An image of a woman using addiction hotline's to learn fentanyl addiction

Call Addiction Hotline if You Need Help for Fentanyl Addiction

Fentanyl addiction is aggravating and disruptive, but it’s also highly treatable. All opioid addiction respond positively to medication-assisted treatment, so shortcut your search for fentanyl rehab by calling Addiction Hotline.

Unsupervised fentanyl withdrawal can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening. We can help you find medical detox centers and rehabs throughout California where you can detox from fentanyl safely and comfortably, addressing physical dependence on opioids and preparing yourself for ongoing treatment.

Hotline staff can also help you locate suitable inpatient rehabs or outpatient treatment centers, so you can continue your recovery and develop the tools and techniques for sober living.

Call 855-701-0479 and begin your recovery from fentanyl addiction right away. 

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Compassionate Care for Substance Abuse Treatment

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