Causes & Effects of Fentanyl Abuse & Addiction

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that is most commonly used in legitimate medical situations to treat individuals who have been suffering from extreme pain that cannot be alleviated by morphine or other less-powerful analgesics. Fentanyl is such a powerful drug that it is usually only provided to individuals who have already been prescribed other opioids, and who have developed tolerance to these medications. In most cases, fentanyl is ingested via a transdermal patch or a lozenge, though it may also be administered via injection. Actiq, Sublimaze, and Duragesic are common examples of brand-name medications that contain fentanyl.

As is the case with other opioids, fentanyl interacts with receptors in the central nervous system that are responsible for sensations of pain and pleasure. When a person ingests fentanyl, he or she will likely experience a state of euphoric relaxation, as well as a reduction in pain. Unfortunately, these powerful, pleasurable effects also make fentanyl, and synthetic derivatives of fentanyl, enticing substances for individuals who are in search of a recreational high.

Clearly, abusing fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl is an extremely dangerous behavior with negative outcomes that can include temporary incapacitation, addiction, irreversible long-term damage, and even death. When a person takes fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl, in addition to the effects listed in the previous paragraph, he or she will also experience shallow breathing and reduced heart rate.  When these substances are abused, either for recreational purposes or in an attempt to self-medicate, it is impossible to ensure that they are taken in proper dosages. Also, in the case of synthetic derivatives of fentanyl, users cannot be sure what, exactly, they are putting into their bodies.

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that more than 13 million prescriptions for fentanyl were written in 2013 and 2014. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has reported that fentanyl is about 50 times stronger than heroin, while many news reports have noted that certain synthetic derivatives of fentanyl are up to 10,000 times stronger than heroin. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that the age-adjusted rate of death from synthetic opioids, a category that includes fentanyl, rose by a staggering 80 percent between 2013 and 2014.

Causes and Risk Factors for Fentanyl Abuse

The likelihood that a person will abuse and become addicted to fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl may be influenced by several factors, including the following:

Genetic: People who have a parent or sibling who has struggled with addiction are at significantly increased risk for also developing a similar problem, and researchers identified both individual genes and gene clusters that appear to be linked to a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder. Also, individuals who inherit traits such as impulsivity or have a novelty-seeking personality have heightened risk for developing opioid use disorder.

Environmental: A person’s risk for abusing and becoming addicted to fentanyl, a synthetic derivative of fentanyl, or another synthetic opioid may be influenced by a myriad of environmental factors, including, but not limited to, stress, childhood adversity, associating with peers who engage in substance abuse, and poverty.

Risk Factors:

  • Prior abuse of opioids
  • Access to fentanyl
  • Suffering a disease or injury that is treated with fentanyl
  • Family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Personal history of trauma
  • Stress

Signs and Symptoms of Fentanyl Abuse

The abuse of and addiction to fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl may be indicated by the following signs and symptoms:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Secrecy and deception
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Diminished participation in significant activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue and extreme drowsiness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Low heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Gastrointestinal distress

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Inability to concentrate and focus
  • Impaired decision making

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Euphoria
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Severe mood swings
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Fentanyl Abuse

Without proper treatment, a person who abuses or becomes addicted to fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl may experience a range of negative outcomes, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Significant physical health problems
  • Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Academic and/or occupational setbacks
  • Job loss
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Financial problems
  • Social isolation
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration
  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempt or attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals who become dependent upon fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl may be at increased risk for suffering from the following co-occurring mental health disorders:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Other substance use disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of fentanyl withdrawal: Attempting to stop or reduce one’s use of fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl after having become dependent upon the drug can lead to the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Agitation
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Extreme abdominal cramping
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dysphoria

Effects of fentanyl overdose: Anyone who exhibits the following symptoms after ingesting fentanyl or a synthetic derivative of fentanyl may have overdosed, and is in need of immediate medical attention:

  • Shallow, labored, or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Depressed heart rate
  • Faint pulse
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Inability to walk or talk
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizure
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