A Lethal Surge: The Devastating Impact of Illicit Fentanyl and the Overdose Epidemic

Potent and profitable, illicit fentanyl is the most prominent and dangerous drug being used today. Illicit fentanyl use has brought on an overdose crisis, with the drug being a leading cause of death for younger Americans.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid often prescribed by physicians to treat patients experiencing severe pain, commonly those with cancer. Typically, the drug is administered via skin patches or lozenges. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl’s effects include:
  • Relaxation
  • Euphoria
  • Pain relief
  • Sedation
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Respiratory depression, or slow, shallow breathing that leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body
Fentanyl can also produce withdrawal symptoms, such as:
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Diarrhea and vomiting
  • Cold flashes and goosebumps
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Severe cravings

The potent drug’s heroin-like effects and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can cause individuals to become dependent and even addicted. Additionally, if not taken as prescribed, fentanyl can slow a person’s breathing to the point of death.

The Rise of Illicit Fentanyl

Illegally made fentanyl is typically formulated in China, Mexico, and India and exported to the U.S. in powder and pill forms. Becoming increasingly prominent on the illicit drug market, fentanyl has greater profit margins than other drugs due to its:

  • Potency: Smaller amounts are necessary to produce the opioid effects buyers expect. Flour or baking soda can be added to fentanyl to bulk up the amount with minimal expense.
  • Substitution: Fentanyl is often replaced with other drugs with similar effects. This can be deadly as users unaware of the substance’s increased potency can more easily overdose.
  • Adulteration: It’s also often added to other drugs, including counterfeit pharmaceutical pills, heroin, and cocaine. When other substances are laced with fentanyl, overdose and death may be more likely as the combination of certain drugs can be toxic.
  • Ease of production: While cocaine and heroin production require plant-based ingredients and elaborate manufacturing facilities, fentanyl is much simpler to make.
  • Ease of transportation: The drug is able to be trafficked in smaller amounts, making it easier to conceal.
  • Legal uses: Fentanyl’s ingredients retain permitted uses, making them complex to control.

For these reasons, fentanyl has eclipsed the illicit opioid market, surpassing heroin as the drug most commonly involved in overdose deaths. In fact, in 2021, two-thirds of all overdose deaths involved fentanyl.

The Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic

Individuals falling fatally to fentanyl have become all too common. Staggering statistics show that fentanyl-involved deaths are dangerously on the rise:

  • Almost 70,000 people in the US died with fentanyl in their systems in 2021, four times the amount in 2016 and roughly eight times the amount in 2015.
  • In 2021, fentanyl was involved in about 22 out of 100,000 overdose deaths.
  • In 2021, the fentanyl overdose death rate was twice that of those involving methamphetamine and cocaine, and over seven times higher than overdose deaths involving heroin.
  • Since 2020, fentanyl poisoning has become the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45.

Preventing Overdose Deaths

Able to reverse the effects of opioids, the medication naloxone can be an immediate and life-saving treatment for a person experiencing an opioid overdose. The medication can be taken as a nose spray or injected into the body. Naloxone should be administered at the onset of an opioid overdose.

Signs of opioid overdose include:
  • Unresponsive to touch or voice
  • Abnormal, slow, or stopped breathing
  • Pin-point sized pupils
  • Bluish lips and nose

Naloxone is only effective for up to 90 minutes. If a person doesn’t receive medical care after taking naloxone, they are still at risk of experiencing an overdose.

Naloxone can be obtained before or during an overdose in the following ways.

Before an overdose occurs:
  • From a pharmacist with or without a prescription, depending on the state
  • From community-based programs and local health departments
In the event of an overdose:
  • From first responders such as police officers, firefighters, and paramedics
  • From a hospital during emergency medical care

Fentanyl Use Disorder Treatment and Recovery at Wasatch Crest

If you’re struggling with fentanyl use, the potential consequences are too severe to not seek help. With clinical care and support from a sober community, recovering from fentanyl addiction is entirely possible. At Wasatch Crest, clients are able to draw on the serenity of our alpine location, while receiving compassionate, targeted treatment and connecting with others in recovery. To learn more about our substance use disorder treatment programs, reach out.

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