Fentanyl Addiction: Treatment, Signs, Symptoms, and Risks

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On November 18, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

While fentanyl has many important medical uses, its function can become very dangerous once people start misusing it. It is such an addictive substance because of the unique way it interacts with the brain. Once an addiction forms, it can be very difficult to stop it without professional treatment for fentanyl.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it is made in a lab rather than derived from natural substances. While many might be familiar with morphine and heroin as powerful and addictive painkillers, few know that fentanyl is several times stronger than both of them. In the medical field, it is often used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures.

It may sometimes be prescribed to treat severe or chronic pain as well. Common brand names include Sublimaze, Duragesic, and Actiq. It is a Schedule II drug. Despite its impressive ability to reduce pain, it is also a major player in overdose deaths in the United States. Around 16,706 people died from opioid overdoses in 2021, most of them involving fentanyl.[1]

Illegal fentanyl is often called jackpot, murder 8, and dance fever.

Side Effects of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is addictive because when a person first misuses it, it will create a strong feeling of euphoria. A crash will follow this feeling and make a person feel exhausted, nauseous, and sluggish. Common side effects of fentanyl include headaches, heartburn, weight loss, vision changes, and anxiety.

How is Fentanyl Taken?

Prescription fentanyl is much different than illegal fentanyl. The prescription options often come in the form of skin patches, lozenges, and shots. Skin patches and lozenges take a while to produce an effect, sometimes as long as an hour. Skin patches release a little bit of fentanyl over several hours. A shot, however, is instant.

Using fentanyl as prescribed can reduce the risk of addiction. However, illegal fentanyl is usually taken as eye drops, injections, pills, or nasal sprays. Illegal fentanyl also contains fillers that can make the substance more dangerous.

Fentanyl Quick Reference Chart

Fentanyl Sublimaze, Duragesic, murder 8, jackpot, goodfellas Schedule II Injection, snorting, eye drops, oral, skin patch

Statistics on Fentanyl Use, Misuse, and Addiction

Fentanyl is one of the most common causes of overdose deaths in the United States.[2] This is likely due to how powerful it is, even when compared to heroin or morphine. When people misuse fentanyl, they may not expect that even a small dose can have fatal consequences.

If an overdose isn’t fatal, it can still cause severe and even permanent damage to the body.

Effects of Fentanyl Abuse

Fentanyl creates a strong sense of pleasure when it binds to the opioid receptors in your brain. This is known as euphoria. But when you use fentanyl for a prolonged period, your brain will develop a tolerance to the drug, and you’ll have to take larger doses to experience the same effect. This will slowly damage the brain and cause effects such as confusion, delusions, paranoia, anxiety, and difficulty breathing.

Can You Overdose on Fentanyl?

When a person overdoses on fentanyl, there is a good chance that it could be fatal. Fentanyl, in high doses, will cause a person to become unresponsive. Their breathing may be very shallow, and some may stop breathing and enter a hypoxic state. This deprives the brain of oxygen and can cause permanent brain damage if the person survives.

It is also possible for fentanyl to stop the heart or cause a heart attack.

Signs and Symptoms of Fentanyl Overdose

Before an overdosed person goes unconscious, they may experience confusion, a lack of motor coordination, and delusions. Upon falling unconscious, it may be impossible to wake them up, and they may not even respond to pain.

Dangers of Long-Term Fentanyl Use

Once the brain becomes used to the presence of fentanyl, it will feel impossible to function without it. Trying to stop suddenly may cause seizures, coma, and death. Using fentanyl for many years can alter the structure and function of your brain. Some of these changes may be irreversible, while others may respond to treatment.

Mixing Fentanyl with Other Drugs

Some people like to mix fentanyl with other opioids to get a stronger effect. Others may prefer to mix it with alcohol, stimulants, or other drugs. Doing this is very dangerous and is often fatal.

Fentanyl Addiction and Abuse

Many people become addicted to fentanyl when they misuse the drug. They may take too much at once or take it in a way other than what was prescribed. If you find that you can’t function without consistently using fentanyl, you may have an addiction problem. Those with substance use disorders or opioid use disorders may be more likely to develop an addiction to fentanyl.

Signs of Addiction to Fentanyl

Cravings are a common sign of addiction. If you haven’t had fentanyl in a while and start getting an intense urge to use it, this is a craving. You may also feel sick due to withdrawal symptoms if you have an addiction.

Fentanyl Addiction and Mental Health

While the high from fentanyl can make you feel happy in the beginning, this drug can soon cause depression and anxiety. Some people have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide after using fentanyl for a while. Others may develop signs of psychosis, such as mood changes or paranoia.

Cutting Agents Used for Fentanyl

Medical fentanyl is not cut with anything since it is a pure product made in a lab. But illegal fentanyl may be cut with other drugs, such as heroin or meth. It may also be cut with talcum powder, laundry detergent, rat poison, and other dangerous substances.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment

Detox and outpatient treatment are ideal for most people suffering from fentanyl addictions. If you feel that your addiction is particularly complex or long-lasting, a partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient program might be better. When attending a rehab for fentanyl, most people recover within one year.

Therapies Used in Fentanyl Addiction Treatment

While cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common options for fentanyl addiction treatment, you can also consider EMDR, group, and individual therapy. Some patients prefer a mixture of these different treatments.

Dual Diagnosis for Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who misuse fentanyl have opioid use disorders or general substance use disorders. Others may have clinical depression, panic disorders, or anxiety. Fentanyl may act as an outlet for their feelings.

Fentanyl Withdrawal Management Treatment

Withdrawal symptoms can last between a week and a month. Detoxing is not a comfortable process, but with the right support on your side, it will be bearable and productive.

Drugs Used in Fentanyl Withdrawal Management

Naloxone is the main drug used to reverse fentanyl overdoses and for withdrawal management.[3] Buprenorphine is another common drug that works in a similar way. Both can help limit the discomfort you might feel during the withdrawal process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Does Illegal Fentanyl Come From?

Illegal fentanyl is usually made by drug gangs. The drug is then distributed on the street. Illegal fentanyl is not a pure product, and, to save money, most producers add cheap filler ingredients. These ingredients can be as dangerous, if not more so, than the fentanyl itself. They may include pesticides, powdered soap, cleaning solutions, and so on. 

Consuming this kind of product can easily lead to an overdose or death.

What Does Fentanyl Do to the Body?

Long-term fentanyl use will destroy your internal organs. Your liver will suffer the most since it is the body’s filter and it breaks down drugs. Once liver damage occurs, there is not much that can be done to reverse the issue. Kidney, heart, and lung issues may also arise. 

Once fentanyl affects the brain, the person may have consistent problems with memory, speech, coordination, and thinking. Cognitive decline and a decrease in IQ are both common problems that may occur in those who use fentanyl.

Can Fentanyl Be Fatal?

Many people die from this drug, especially when it is mixed with other substances. Many of these deaths are accidental because the person using the drug may not understand how much of the substance their body can take. 

A person using fentanyl for the first time could easily kill themselves by accident due to the potent nature of the drug. Those who have been using the drug for years are also at risk of falling victim to this substance, especially once they start taking very large doses. This is why treatment is so important, as is the avoidance of this drug. 

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Sources

[1]  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023b, March 31). Drug overdose death rates. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates on May 25, 2023.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023b, May 12). Fentanyl facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/index.html on May 25, 2023.

[3] NIDA. (2021, June 1). Fentanyl DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl on May 25, 2023.