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Fentanyl Addiction, Abuse and Treatment

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid prescribed to patients who have already built a tolerance to other pain medications. Due to its potency, it has a high potential for addiction.

Understanding Fentanyl

Fentanyl transdermal patchA 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:

  • Actiq—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.
  • Duragesic—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.
  • Sublimaze—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—Subsys is a sublingual spray administered under a patient’s tongue to deliver immediate pain relief. Its purpose is to treat breakthrough cancer pain.
  • Abstral—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—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.

If you someone you care about is abusing fentanyl, seek help now.

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.

Those ingesting fentanyl at unprescribed levels experience an intense euphoria and sense of relaxation similar to a heroin “high.”

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.

Mixing fentanyl with illicit narcotics like heroin or stimulants like cocaine amplify the drug’s damaging side effects. Whether taken as prescribed or abused recreationally, fentanyl is a volatile and potentially lethal drug.

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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.

Learn more about recognizing an addiction to fentanyl.

Fentanyl Addiction Treatment

Although rarely life-threatening, cutting out fentanyl “cold turkey” can be a miserable process. Those shouldering a fentanyl addiction have likely developed physical dependence on the substance, with ensuing withdrawals taking a painful toll. Specialized treatment centers offer inpatient and outpatient resources to help those addicted quit fentanyl.

Fentanyl withdrawal might vary in severity depending on levels of use and chosen form of the substance, ranging 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.

Regaining Control is a Phone Call Away

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.

Begin breaking your addiction today.

Sources & Author Last Edited: January 21, 2016

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Fentanyl. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  2. The New York Times. (2014). Pennsylvania Deaths of 22 Linked to Batch of Heroin. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  3. Slate. (2014). Bad Heroin: Did a Mixture of Heroin and Fentanyl Kill Philip Seymour Hoffman? Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2006). Fentanyl Use in Combination With Street Drugs Leading to Death in Some Cases. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  5. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries. (2014). Actiq Official Site. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  6. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (2014). Duragesic Official Site. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  7. INSYS Therapeutics, Inc. (2014). Subsys Official Site. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  8. Galena Biopharma. (2013). Abstral Official Site. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
  9. Depomed Inc. (2013). Lazanda Official Site. Retrieved on March 19, 2014, from:
About the Writer, Kayla Smith

Kayla Smith is the editorial director for Addiction Center. After working for years as a journalist, she joined the Addiction Center team in hopes of spreading awareness about addiction and mental health issues and helping people get treatment.

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