Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.
People may use the terms opioids and opiates interchangeably, but they actually refer to two different types of drugs. Opiates are natural opioids made from the opium poppy plant, including heroin, morphine, and codeine, while opioids refer to all types of opioid drugs, including synthetic versions. Fentanyl is one of the most well-known of these synthetic opioids.
Whether the opioid is natural or synthetic, the chemicals within these drugs interact with the body’s and brain’s opioid receptors, found in our nerve cells. Opioids reduce the intensity and feeling of pain.
The Opioid Epidemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 70% of all drug overdose deaths in 2019 were linked to opioids. Of those 49,860 opioid-related deaths, more than 36,000 involved synthetic opioids (excluding methadone). The overdose deaths from synthetic opioids increased by more than 15% between 2018 and 2019.
All opioids come with some risk of addiction if taken for too long or misused. However, synthetic opioids like fentanyl carry even greater risk because of their high potency. If a person is taking an illegally manufactured version of a synthetic opioid, they won’t know the true composition and potency of the drug. This increases the likelihood of unintentional overdoses, as well as other problems.
The Problem with Synthetic Opioids
Synthetic opioids are manmade in a lab. Fentanyl, pethidine, levorphanol, methadone, tramadol, and dextropropoxyphene are types of synthetic opioids. These forms of opioids are often significantly more potent at lower doses than natural opioids. Prescription versions of synthetic opioids can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Fentanyl is most dangerous when it is illicitly manufactured. Street dealers frequently add illegal fentanyl to other drugs without the end user’s knowledge. Due to the potency of fentanyl, this can lead to overdose and death.
Illegal fentanyl can be found in several forms, including:
- dropped on blotter paper like small candies
- in eye droppers or nasal sprays
- pills that look like real prescription opioids
Effects of Synthetic Opioids
Like other forms of opioids, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids produce effects such as:
- extreme happiness
- problems breathing
Overdosing on fentanyl is very possible. When this happens, the user experiences a slowing or stopping of their breathing. This can result in less oxygen reaching the brain, a condition called hypoxia. This lack of oxygen can result in a coma, permanent brain damage, and death.
An overdose of synthetic opioids can be treated with naloxone. However, because fentanyl is stronger than morphine, it may take more than one dose of naloxone to block the effect of the opioid on the brain and body. If an overdose is suspected, bystanders should call 911 immediately so first responders can administer naloxone and other treatments as soon as possible.
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