A synthetic pharmaceutical drug, fentanyl is an opioid pain reliever (OPR) more than 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It is used to relieve severe pain, such as after surgery or during cancer treatment, and breakthrough pain (flare-ups of intense pain despite round-the-clock narcotic treatment).
Fentanyl can take many forms to meet the patient’s needs.
Some brand names and forms for fentanyl include:
This form of fentanyl comes as a lozenge on a plastic stick administered under the tongue like a lollipop. It is used for patients already on pain-relieving medications and has some military applications.
The fentanyl patch was introduced in the 1990s. It is prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain and its effects can last for up to 3 days.
Generally administered in hospitals, sometimes alongside anesthetics, Sublimaze is the injectible form of fentanyl. It is used to manage pain before and after surgeries.
Subsys is a sublingual spray administered under a patient’s tongue to deliver immediate pain relief. Its purpose is to treat breakthrough cancer pain.
Also used for opioid-tolerant patients with breakthrough cancer pain, Abstral is the quick-dissolve tablet version of fentanyl and is placed under the tongue for immediate relief.
Lazanda is a fentanyl nasal spray administered in the same manner as a common nasal decongestant spray. It is predominantly used to treat pain in cancer patients.
Fentanyl works by blocking pain receptors in the brain and increasing production of the happiness-inducing chemical dopamine. Street names for fentanyl include apache, China girl, China white, dance fever, TNT and crush.
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Fentanyl Abuse and Effects
Like other potent OPRs, fentanyl harbors massive risk for addiction and abuse regardless of its prescription form.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has warned that a fentanyl epidemic could develop because of the substance’s immense potency and addictive potential.
Outward symptoms of fentanyl abuse might include:
- Slowed breathing
- Blurred vision
- Nausea and vomiting
Fentanyl abuse is especially dangerous to those without a tolerance to opioids. The substance’s already elevated risk of overdose is multiplied when someone without a tolerance abuses it.
Abuse of fentanyl can depress the respiratory system to the point of failure, leading to fatal overdose.
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Signs of a Fentanyl Addiction
Since many patients don’t believe OPRs like fentanyl harbor significant addictive potential like heroin or other street drugs, it has a higher likelihood for accidental and intentional abuse.
Fentanyl impacts the central nervous system to a significant degree, causing excess amounts of dopamine to flood and chemically alter the brain over time. Due to these neurochemical changes, someone prescribed fentanyl might become dependent on the drug and turn to illegal methods of getting it after exhausting their prescribed amount.
Once someone develops a tolerance to fentanyl’s narcotic properties, he or she will depend on it to feel “normal,” requiring more of the drug to reach the previous sensations.
OPRs like fentanyl can escalate from abuse to full-blown addiction rapidly. Thanks to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder, healthcare professionals can pinpoint problematic behavior like building a tolerance or suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Fentanyl Addiction Treatment
Although rarely life-threatening, cutting out fentanyl “cold turkey” can be a miserable process. Those shouldering a fentanyl addiction will likely experience painful withdrawals if they cease taking the drug or reduce their dose. Specialized treatment centers offer inpatient and outpatient resources to help those addicted quit fentanyl.
Fentanyl withdrawal varies in severity depending a number of factors such as level of use and chosen form of the substance. Withdrawal symptoms range from marked irritability and chills to sweating and restlessness.
Despite the typically non-lethal nature of fentanyl withdrawal, users are still vulnerable to potential relapse. Professional medical supervision during detoxification can ease the cleansing process and curb the odds of relapse.
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A fentanyl addiction can be arduous to overcome, but despite the difficulties, winning this struggle is possible. Support groups exist in communities across the country to lend a helping hand or ear.
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