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What Is Fentanyl?

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Fentanyl is a synthetic analgesic drug developed to treat painful conditions such as cancer or post-surgery recovery. Legitimate uses of fentanyl include those prescribed by a health provider or in clinical settings. However, fentanyl and its analogs are also illicitly synthesized in clandestine labs overseas and trafficked into the United States for black market distribution. Fentanyl is less expensive and more potent than heroin, and its presence in the drug trade has led to countless overdoses and deaths and has been a primary contributor to the opioid epidemic.

If you or a loved one have been using fentanyl in any way not prescribed by a licensed physician, you are urged to seek detox and professional help for opioid use disorder promptly. Guardian Recovery offers individualized treatment plans spanning multiple levels of care featuring therapies clinically proven effective in treating opioid misuse and addiction. Contact us today and learn more about our comprehensive programs and holistic approaches to recovery and wellness.

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How Does Fentanyl Compare With Other Synthetic Opioids?

The dangers of using fentanyl cannot be understated. Whether it’s used intentionally or by accident, those who ingest it are at a high risk of experiencing a life-threatening overdose that is more severe and difficult to treat than those related to less powerful counterparts, such as heroin and morphine. In fact, fentanyl is far more potent than all naturally-occurring opiates and most synthetic opioids, including codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. It’s approximately 50 times stronger than heroin.

Medical Uses for Fentanyl

Fentanyl can be extremely useful in the medical setting. Its potency allows it to be used as a remedy for severe pain, especially breakthrough pain other medications cannot control, such as in patients with cancer. (1) Fentanyl is also used as both an anesthetic before surgery and a pain reliever following surgery.

Depending on the purpose of its use, fentanyl can be administered in several ways, such as the following:

Transdermal Patch

A transdermal fentanyl patch is advantageous for managing chronic pain conditions. The patch is able to stick to the skin and slowly administer the drug through the skin into the bloodstream to provide long-term pain relief.

Lozenge or Lollipop

A fentanyl lozenge is medication-infused and often resembles a sucker or cough drop. Their purpose is to slowly dissolve in the mouth and administer fentanyl through the oral mucosal tissue. Fentanyl lozenges work well for controlling breakthrough pain in cancer patients.


Fentanyl is often administered through injection into a vein (intravenously) or a muscle (intramuscularly). Fentanyl injections are most often used in a hospital setting for acute severe pain management and anesthesia.

Nasal Spray

Fentanyl can be sprayed into the nasal passage as a mist. After injection, this is the fastest-acting method of administering fentanyl. It is used to manage severe acute pain and breakthrough pain for cancer patients. In addition, because it doesn’t require a needle, it is less invasive.

Pain Relief Uses

Fentanyl is used for pain management in clinical settings, primarily for relieving chronic and breakthrough pain. (2) For chronic pain, fentanyl is typically delivered slowly over 48-72 hours through a transdermal patch. This type of fentanyl delivery is well suited for managing chronic pain conditions, as it provides continuous relief over an extended period.

For breakthrough pain, fentanyl is usually administered in a faster-acting form, such as an injection, lozenge, or nasal spray. This type of delivery provides rapid, short-term relief from sudden, severe pain in those already using other pain medications to treat their condition.

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How Does Fentanyl Interact with the Brain & Cause Addiction?

Fentanyl interacts with the brain similarly to other opioids, such as morphine and heroin. When fentanyl is introduced into the body, it attaches to opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS). (3) Subsequently, it triggers many chemical events, including a massive release of dopamine, ultimately leading to feelings of well-being, pain relief, and sedation. Its high affinity for binding to these receptors results in a rapid onset of action and a profound effect on the CNS.

Fentanyl’s near-immediate and intense effects make it an attractive substance for misuse, and tolerance, dependence, and full-blown addiction can develop rapidly and with little warning.

Illegal Fentanyl Production

Due to fentanyl’s potent effect and ease of production, illegal labs in areas overseas began manufacturing fentanyl many years ago as a less expensive alternative to heroin. Fentanyl produced this way typically consists of chemical variants intended to circumvent federal laws. Moreover, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) can’t keep up with the scheduling of fentanyl’s many alternate formulas and ensure they are treated as highly controlled substances.

Illicit fentanyl production, which occurs outside of the normal legal channels, is a significant problem because it contributes to the opioid epidemic and the rise in overdose deaths. Fentanyl is often labeled as far more innocuous substances, such as prescription oxycodone or hydrocodone tablets. It’s also found as a component of street drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or meth.

Fentanyl is often mass-produced by large, highly organized criminal operations in countries such as Mexico and China, which then distribute it globally. (4) Because the manufacturing process is unregulated, it frequently occurs in unsanitary conditions and can involve numerous different chemicals. As a result, the purity, potency, and overall safety of fentanyl found on the street can be highly variable. This unpredictability of effects dramatically increases the risk of accidental overdose.

Dangers of Fentanyl-Laced Drugs

When drugs such as cocaine, meth, or heroin are cut with fentanyl, users may not be aware of the drug’s presence or its potential effects. (5) This unpredictability increases the risk of overdose. Also, because fentanyl is so powerful, a small amount can profoundly impact the central nervous system, resulting in serious side effects such as life-threatening respiratory depression.

Signs of a Fentanyl Overdose Include:

  • Respiratory depression.
  • Cyanosis, or bluish/grayish skin, lips, or nails.
  • Unconsciousness or coma.
  • Slow or irregular heartbeat.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Seizures.

If you suspect someone has overdosed on fentanyl, seek immediate medical attention, as this is a life-threatening emergency. Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is often used in these cases to halt and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

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Fentanyl use comes with all of the dangers associated with other opioids, such as oxycodone and heroin, but even more significant. Because fentanyl is so potent, use places individuals at an extremely high risk of developing tolerance, dependence, and addiction. In addition, prolonged use can lead to various severe health issues, and overdoses are often fatal, especially if left untreated.

At Guardian Recovery, we are wholly prepared to help individuals struggling with the misuse of fentanyl overcome their addiction and reduce their chances of experiencing severe consequences, such as a life-threatening overdose. We encourage you to reach out to us to speak with a skilled Treatment Advisor who can tell you more about our wide variety of therapeutic treatment methods and activities. Contact us for a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check to begin the recovery process today.


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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.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


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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