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Is Fentanyl an Opioid?

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Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. Opioids are a group of substances that include drugs such as morphine, heroin, and codeine. (1) Fentanyl can be used illegally, or it can be prescribed by a doctor. Fentanyl that is sold illegally is often in the form of a powder, dropped onto absorbent papers, eye droppers, nasal sprays, and made into pills that resemble prescription opioids. (2) The rise in fentanyl use has greatly impacted the opioid crisis. The Opioid Epidemic was declared a public health concern in 2017 due to the amount of overdoses that resulted in fatalities. (3)

Here at Guardian Recovery, we understand how common addiction can be. If you suspect that you or a loved one are having difficulties controlling fentanyl use, opioid use disorder may be at play. We offer opioid and fentanyl specific detoxification services to help make the transition to sobriety a safe one. Depending on the severity of one’s substance use, medication assisted treatment may be beneficial. Contact us today to get started and learn which treatment option may be best for you.

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Drug Classification & Schedule of Fentanyl

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies fentanyl as a Schedule II substance. (4) This means that fentanyl cannot be used for recreational purposes, but it can be used for certain medical reasons. Substances within the Schedule II class are considered dangerous and highly addictive.

Other substances within the Schedule II drug class include: (5)

How Is Fentanyl Developed From the Poppy Plant?

Natural opioids are produced from seed pods that are found in various Poppy plants. This fact often makes people wonder how exactly is fentanyl an opioid? Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are synthesized in labs and made to target the same parts of the brain as natural opioids. (6) They are believed to be developed in other countries, then imported into the United States. Mexico and China are the primary countries responsible for fentanyl production and trafficking. Since the production of fentanyl is not regulated, it is often done in poor sanitary areas with numerous chemicals being added.

Properties of Fentanyl & Synthetic Opioids

The main properties of fentanyl include high potency, quick serum clearance, and little release of histamines. (7) Fentanyl is known to be fast acting due to how it quickly crosses the blood brain barrier. (8) Other synthetic opioids have similar properties, leading to similar effects.

How Do Opioids Affect the Brain & Body?

Once ingested, opioids attach to the opioid receptors in the brain. (9) Dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved with pleasure, floods the brain following opioid use. This leads to temporary feelings of euphoria, sedation, and pain relief. These effects are almost immediate, which unfortunately encourages the development of addiction. It is estimated that the effects of fentanyl can present themselves within 2 minutes of ingestion. Just as opioids can affect the brain, they can also affect the body. Both short-term and long-term opioid use can lead to adverse health effects.

Common effects caused by fentanyl use include:

  • Temporary happiness
  • Sedation
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulties breathing

Long-term effects due to opioid use include: (10)

  • Digestive system issues – Opioid use can cause abdomen pain, bloating, and swollenness. This can lead to serious gastrointestinal problems.
  • Liver impairments – Opioid use can cause liver damage and lead to liver diseases such as liver cancer.
  • Respiratory depression – Opioid use can cause such slow breathing to the point that the body is unable to receive the proper amount of oxygen. This can lead to brain damage.
  • Psychological and physical dependence – Opioid use can lead to the development of tolerance. Tolerance is when larger amounts of a substance is needed in order to reach the desired high. Over time, an individual’s body begins to depend on opioids in order to feel normal.

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How is Fentanyl Different Than Other Opioids?

Fentanyl is different from its other opioid counterparts. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than morphine, and 100 times more potent than heroin. This potency makes it easier for toxins to build up in the body, leading to smaller doses causing an overdose. Fentanyl also differs from other opioids because it is tasteless, odorless, and too small to see with the human eye. (11) This makes it possible for individuals to consume fentanyl without knowing that they ingested it. Additionally, smaller amounts of fentanyl are needed when compared to other opioids in order to lead to death. As little as the equivalent of a grain of sand can result in a fatality. (12)

Pharmaceutical Use of Fentanyl & Synthetic Opioids

Fentanyl is an analgesic, meaning that it is used to help treat pain. (13) Fentanyl is often prescribed by a doctor for chronic pain, or following a surgical procedure. It has been beneficial for cancer patients who are experiencing symptoms associated with pain. Fentanyl can also be used as an anesthetic before a surgical procedure. Even fentanyl and other opioids used for medical purposes can lead to opioid use disorder.

Pharmaceutical uses for fentanyl include:

  • Lozenge or Lollipop – This is a fentanyl-infused cough drop, or sucker, that administers the substance through the oral mucosal tissue. This medical form of fentanyl is often used to help with the treatment of cancer.
  • Transdermal patches – This patch sticks to the skin and slowly presents fentanyl to the bloodstream. These patches are often used to help manage chronic pain.
  • Injections – Fentanyl injections are usually administered intravenously. These are given in hospital settings for anesthesia and severe pain.
  • Nasal sprays – This rapid method of fentanyl administration is sprayed into the nasal passage way. It is easy to administer and is used for pain management and to help treat cancer.

Overdose Symptoms of Opioids

Fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids, are the most common substances involved in overdose fatalities within the United States. (14) Every day, approximately 150 adults die due to experiencing an overdose from fentanyl, and other synthetic opioid use. (15)

Understanding the symptoms associated with an opioid overdose can help you identify if you or someone you know are experiencing one. In addition, being knowledgeable of overdose signs can help individuals learn which steps are necessary in the event that they occur.

Signs and symptoms associated with an opioid overdose include: (16)

  • Constricted pupils
  • Respiratory problems
  • Losing consciousness or not being able to stay awake
  • Choking
  • Discolored, cold, or clammy skin

If you suspect that you or someone you know are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is important to seek immediate emergency medical care.

Why Do Most Opioid-Related Deaths Contain Fentanyl?

Since fentanyl is extremely potent, and it is often involved in most opioid related overdose deaths. Only as little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl is needed in order to cause death. (17) One kilogram of fentanyl is enough to potentially kill half a million people. (18)

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Here at Guardian Recovery, we provide psychoeducation and substance use education to help individuals understand how fentanyl and other substances can cause addiction. With treatment options including individual therapygroup therapy, and family therapy, our therapeutic interventions can help you or a loved one get to the root of a substance use disorder. With dual diagnosis treatment, we can help those experiencing mental health disorders that occur simultaneously with substance use disorders. Contact us to receive a free, no obligation insurance benefit check. Recovery is possible with Guardian Recovery.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/opioids#:~:text=Opioids%20are%20a%20class%20of,%2C%20morphine%2C%20and%20many%20others.
  2. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl#:~:text=Fentanyl%20is%20a%20powerful%20synthetic,to%20100%20times%20more%20potent.
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378105/
  4. https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/drug-scheduling
  5. https://www.dea.gov/drug-information/drug-scheduling
  6. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Synthetic%20Opioids-2020.pdf
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/fentanyl
  8. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/fentanyl
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/fentanyl
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547864/#:~:text=It%20is%20possible%20that%20the,occur%20with%20severe%20opioid%20overdose.
  11. https://kingcounty.gov/depts/health/~/media/depts/health/overdose/documents/youth-discussion-guide.ashx#:~:text=Fentanyl%20is%20tasteless%2C%20odorless%2C%20and,teens%20trust%20to%20supply%20them.
  12. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/fentanyl-science-potent-deadly-1.3760244
  13. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
  14. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl
  15. https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/index.html#:~:text=Over%20150%20people%20die%20every,to%20synthetic%20opioids%20like%20fentanyl.&text=Drugs%20may%20contain%20deadly%20levels,drugs%20with%20fentanyl%20test%20strips.
  16. https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/fentanyl/index.html#:~:text=Over%20150%20people%20die%20every,to%20synthetic%20opioids%20like%20fentanyl.&text=Drugs%20may%20contain%20deadly%20levels,drugs%20with%20fentanyl%20test%20strips.
  17. https://www.dea.gov/resources/facts-about-fentanyl

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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