03 May The Dangers of Fentanyl Overdose
Fentanyl is a potentially dangerous drug that is easy to develop a dependency to and even overdose. Although a fairly common cause of overdose, claiming the lives of thousands of people each year, it wasn’t until the death of pop star Prince in April 2016 from a fentanyl overdose that the drug came into the spotlight. Recently, the death toll from fentanyl overdose has been on the rise. So what is fentanyl and why is it becoming more prevalent?
What is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a potent prescription synthetic opioid analgesic that is commonly prescribed for the treatment of chronic and severe pain. Pharmaceutical grade fentanyl is actually 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. When acquired on the street, the drug is often mixed with heroin, making it more potent and dangerous. Because it is such a strong drug, the chances of overdosing on fentanyl are actually rather high.
And fentanyl overdose can be quite dangerous. Overdosing on fentanyl can cause very serious short and long-term health consequences, and is sometimes fatal. Users and loved ones should always understand what the symptoms of an overdose look like to be able to reduce the likelihood of a negative or fatal outcome. Before things get to that point, it can also be helpful to be able to identify the signs of fentanyl abuse, so it hopefully never gets to the point of overdose.
What are the Signs of Fentanyl Abuse?
While fentanyl abuse can sometimes be difficult to recognize, there are several signs that may point to a person using the drug improperly. The high potency of fentanyl significantly increases the chances that a user will abuse the drug and develop a dependence. The chances are heightened further if the person is acquiring the drug on the street, as it may be mixed with other potent addiction-forming substances.
The common signs of fentanyl abuse include:
- Feelings of euphoria and relaxation
- False sense of well-being
- Nausea and vomiting
- Drug-seeking behavior (doctor shopping, forging prescriptions)
- Drug tolerance (needing more to achieve same effects)
- Respiratory depression or arrest
- Withdrawal symptoms when ceasing use
What Causes a Fentanyl Overdose?
An overdose refers specifically to an inundation of a certain medication. In the case of fentanyl, the opiate overwhelms the body’s critical receptors, which impends respiratory and cardiac function. When the body’s natural opiate receptors become clogged with fentanyl, the body can no longer rid itself of the drug, and the body will begin to shut down as the brain and body are deprived of oxygen.
There are several factors involved in causing a fentanyl overdose, but for the most part, recreational use is the most risky behavior. This can easily lead to overdose because its users are often unaware of the potency of fentanyl. Other times, the users are unaware the drug has been mixed with other drugs or does not know the dangerous interactions that occur when the drug is mixed, even with alcohol.
Other behaviors characteristic of fentanyl abuse that can lead to overdose include taking fentanyl in higher doses or more frequently than prescribed, using the drug in a way other than intended, such as snorting or injecting it and combining fentanyl with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, alcohol and stimulants.
Abusers of fentanyl can build up a high tolerance to the drug despite its potency, meaning they will require a higher dosage to achieve the same effects. This can raise the risk for overdose. A person who quits the drug and relapses also has a higher probability of overdosing because their tolerance will drop. The high doses they were using before quitting could overwhelm their system if they were to use again.
Those who use the fentanyl patch need to be extra careful in excessive heat, because it can cause the patches to release higher levels of fentanyl, which may inadvertently cause an overdose.
What are the Symptoms of a Fentanyl Overdose?
Fentanyl can be dangerous even to those who use the drug as prescribed. Because the drug is so powerful, doctors will only prescribe it to those who are in severe, chronic pain and have become tolerant to other opiates. A physician should monitor treatment with fentanyl closely to make sure the dosage is safe.
Being aware of the symptoms of a fentanyl overdose can help those who witness the signs to get the person help quickly before things get any worse. There are several characteristic physical symptoms of a fentanyl overdose that should be rather easy to recognize, especially if you know the person is an abuser of the drug. Some of these symptoms include:
- Difficulty thinking, speaking or walking
- A very pale face
- Blue- or purple-colored lips, fingernails, or extremities
- Clammy/cold skin to the touch
- Throwing up
- Choking sounds or gurgling/snoring noises
- Pinpoint pupils (pupil size reduced to small black circles in middle of eyes)
- Low blood pressure
- Slowed or erratic heart rate
- Excessive drowsiness
- Frequent fainting spells (nodding off)
- Limp body
- Hypoventilation (slow, shallow breathing)
- Difficulty breathing (respiratory rate very slow, irregular, or altogether stopped)
- Respiratory arrest
As an opiate based substance, the overdose symptoms of fentanyl will mirror those of other opiate overdoses, including heroin and other opiate-based medications including Vicodin, OxyContin, and Dilaudid.
What to Do in the Event of a Fentanyl Overdose
Being able to Identify a fentanyl overdose as soon as possible can make the difference between life and death. If you are experiencing or witness someone having a fentanyl overdose, call 911 immediately to seek emergency services. The person having the overdose needs immediate help to reduce the chances of long-term of fatal outcomes.
Medical professionals will respond quickly and can help minimize the damage caused by a fentanyl overdose. In other cases, they may even be able to save the person’s life. While you are waiting for the emergency crew to arrive, you can also help to keep the person alive be closely supervising them and making note of their condition. There are also a few things you can do to give the person who overdosed the best chance of survival.
A person overdosing on fentanyl may seem to lose consciousness peacefully, but it may be an overdose nonetheless and can be fatal if untreated. If the person overdosing is awake, keep them awake and upright if at all possible.
Overdose victims often vomit, so another thing you can do is to turn them on their side, so if they do vomit they will not choke on it. Stay with the person until responders arrive and give a complete and honest account of everything you know the person consumed before the overdose, as well as their history with the drug and the symptoms you have witnessed.
If the overdose is caused by a fentanyl patch, remove the patch immediately. If you are with someone who has taken the drug and they start to make unusual sounds while they are sleeping, you should try to wake them up. They might not just be snoring— they could actually be overdosing and are at risk for death.
When medical professionals arrive, they will treat the overdose as if the person has been poisoned. Depending on when the person last took fentanyl, they may pump their stomach to remove as much of the drug as possible before it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Activated charcoal may be utilized to this end as well. These tactics will not counteract the overdose symptoms that are already present, but they can help to prevent further damage from increased absorption of the drug.
Medical responders will also check for irregular breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Some cases of overdose will be treated with naloxone, a medication that blocks opioid receptors and can quickly stop dangerous overdose effects. However, a special license is needed to administer this drug. Naloxone can help the individual begin breathing on their own.
Naloxone also has a short half-life, meaning that the person who overdosed could stop breathing again after the initial overdose was reversed. The person will need to be monitored closely and multiple doses may be necessary to prevent this from happening.
The biggest risk for death is decreased respiration, which causes a lack of oxygen in the person’s body. When they don’t breathe enough, it can damage their lungs and brain, and potentially lead to death. First responders will have a short window to treat the person dealing with these symptoms because they can occur right away. If you notice the person not breathing or struggling to breathe before the emergency responders arrive, you may need to perform CPR to get oxygen into their body and potentially keep them alive.
The person suffering from an overdose can have lasting effects from the experience if they survive if not treated immediately. The person can develop hypoxia, which can cause permanent brain damage.
There are also a few things you should NOT do when you discover a person having an overdose. This includes putting the person in a bath, because they could drown. You also should not induce vomiting, as the person may choke, the same goes for giving them something to drink. Absolutely do not inject the person with anything except for naloxone.
Is There Any Way to Prevent a Fentanyl Overdose?
Yes! There is. Not overdosing generally comes down to not abusing fentanyl. Only take the dosage you are prescribed and as directed by a medical professional. If you or someone you know seems to be developing a dependency or addiction to fentanyl, address the situation and do something to fix it, to remove the chance of overdose. Whenever addiction is present, seek professional help to get treatment. This will drastically reduce the risk for an overdose and its consequences. Substance abuse treatment will help many people overcome their addiction and move on to have a happy and healthy life.
Recovering From a Fentanyl Overdose
Getting professional treatment is the next step if a person survives their overdose. The best plan is to enter a rehab program that will provide you with a safe, comfortable and supportive environment as you work through your addiction. All programs are different, so you will want to choose one that is the best fit, but do so quickly. Your doctor can often help direct you to an appropriate program, based on your level of addiction and your health history, among other factors.
There are several different treatment programs to choose from, including inpatient and outpatient treatment, 12-step programs and medication-assisted treatments. Many will opt for a combination of these different treatments.
Fentanyl overdose is very dangerous, and abuse of the drug should be dealt with at all costs to avoid things getting to that point. If you or someone you know is dealing with fentanyl abuse or addiction, get help as soon as you can. It may save the person’s life.
Brande, Lauren. “Fentanyl Overdose.” Drugabuse.com. 13 Mar. 2019. https://drugabuse.com/fentanyl/overdose/
Tackett, Brittany. “What Does a Fentanyl Overdose Look Like?” Project Know. 13 Mar. 2019. https://www.projectknow.com/fentanyl-overdose/
Carter, Alan. “Everything You Need to Know About Fentanyl.” Medical News Today. 22 Jan. 2019. 13 Mar. 2019. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/308156.php