Fentanyl Addiction—Abuse And Treatment Options

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on November 12, 2020

Fentanyl abuse is highly dangerous due to the opioid’s potent chemical properties, which can lead quickly to addiction. Treatment for fentanyl addiction involves treating physical and psychological side effects and teaching individuals coping skills to enter recovery.

Fentanyl Addiction And Treatment Options

Fentanyl abuse has become increasingly common as the drug is now one of the most widely produced illicit drugs.

Synthetic fentanyl doses can lead to overdose with just one use, so abuse of the drug is highly dangerous. Those with opioid addictions are especially at risk of coming in contact with fentanyl, as more and more illicit drugs, such as heroin, are being laced with fentanyl.

Fentanyl treatment programs can aid individuals in quitting use of opioids, managing withdrawal, and altering behavior for a sober lifestyle.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a potent, opioid narcotic medication originally used to treat severe pain, such as in cancer patients or after major surgeries.

Similar to morphine, another potent opioid prescription, fentanyl is considered 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Fentanyl comes in many legal forms and is available in several brands, including:

  • Abstral
  • Actiq
  • Duragesic
  • Fentora
  • Sublimaze

Fentanyl is available as a shot (injection), skin patch, or throat lozenge (similar in form to a cough drop).

How Is Fentanyl Abused?

For those who are prescribed fentanyl, abuse may come in the form of changing dosage size, method of administration, or frequency of dosage.

Illicit (illegal) fentanyl may be abused when a person buys drugs off the street laced with fentanyl, such as cocaine or heroin.

Illegally produced fentanyl is also sold as pills that look like prescriptions, a powder which is snorted or dissolved in water to be injected, or put into nasal spray or eye drops.

How Does Fentanyl Abuse Lead To Addiction?

If a person intentionally abuses illicit fentanyl, it is likely that they have an addiction to other potent opioids, such as prescription opioids or heroin.

Addiction often leads to tolerance to a substance or being unable to feel the effects of a substance of abuse. This happens quickly with opioids due to the way the drugs affect the brain and body.

Opioids like fentanyl work by attaching to opioid-like receptors in the brain and increasing production of feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine. This effectively leads to reduced perceptions of pain and euphoria.

With repeated use, fentanyl can cause disruptions to the brain’s chemical communication system, making the body feel it needs fentanyl to produce feel-good chemicals.

Over time, the brain may stop producing such chemicals altogether, a process that urges a person to continue using fentanyl and prompts them to feel they have no choice, also called addiction.

Fentanyl abuse can also lead to a dangerous form of addiction called physical dependence, in which the body relies on fentanyl to function and results in painful withdrawal symptoms when a person stops the use of fentanyl.

Because fentanyl is a highly potent drug, any abuse of it can lead to major side effects.

Signs And Symptoms Of Fentanyl Addiction

If a person is abusing fentanyl, they may already have formed an addiction to another opioid, such as other prescription opioids or heroin.

Opioids cause addiction by making a person reliant on them to function and producing desirable side effects, such as euphoria (extreme happiness), relaxation, and calm.

Fentanyl addiction is incredibly dangerous, as the drug is so powerful a person is at risk of overdose or other damaging effects to health each time they abuse it.

Signs and symptoms of a fentanyl addiction include:

  • preoccupation with getting and using the drug
  • tolerance to the effects of fentanyl
  • using more fentanyl in order to feel the effects of the drug
  • increasing dosage
  • changing method of administration for faster effects
  • undergoing withdrawal when not using fentanyl or other opioids

Fentanyl addiction can result in a number of side effects due to repeated use of the drug, some of which can have lasting effects on a person’s health.

Side Effects Of Fentanyl Abuse

Fentanyl takes effect immediately and short-term effects are typically severe. If fentanyl does not lead to overdose, long-term effects can include major risks to a person’s health.

The following are possible side effects of fentanyl abuse:

  • euphoria
  • drowsiness
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • constipation
  • sedation
  • breathing troubles
  • loss of consciousness
  • development of addiction
  • withdrawal
  • physical dependence

Why Do People Abuse Fentanyl?

Those who abuse prescription fentanyl may be in extreme pain and believe abuse to be safe due to their pain level. Unfortunately, fentanyl is never a safe drug to abuse and should not be taken without medical supervision.

Illicit abuse of fentanyl may stem from an existing addiction to or dependence on other opioids. A person may begin abusing their opioid prescription and seek an alternative when it runs out in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Over time, a person may become tolerant to even more potent opioids, like heroin. They may then turn to an even more powerful high with fentanyl or fentanyl-laced heroin or cocaine.

While any abuse of fentanyl is dangerous due to the drug’s powerful chemical properties, polydrug abuse (or abuse of more than one drug at a time) comes with many risks.

Risks Of Long-Term Fentanyl Abuse

Fentanyl abuse can lead to various long-term health risks, not the least of which is a fatal overdose.

The following include possible risks of long-term fentanyl abuse:

  • changes in sex drive and activity
  • chronic constipation
  • muscle and bone pain
  • sleep troubles/insomnia
  • leg tremors
  • slowed or stopped breathing, which can lead to hypoxia and brain damage
  • slowed or stopped blood pressure or heart rates, which can be fatal

Signs And Symptoms Of Fentanyl Overdose

The potency of fentanyl means a person is at risk of overdose with each instance of abuse. This is especially true for those who may be in treatment for opioid abuse, thereby reducing their tolerance to opioids, who try to abuse the drug again.

Anyone using prescription fentanyl is advised to keep an overdose reversal drug, naloxone (Narcan), on-hand in case of accidental overdose.

Fentanyl overdose signs and symptoms may include:

  • bluish tint to nails or skin
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • loss of consciousness
  • mental confusion
  • slow, shallow, or stopped breathing
  • extremely small pupils (black circles in the middle of the eyes)
  • coma

Fentanyl And Polysubstance Abuse

Mixing fentanyl with other drugs or alcohol is a dangerous habit. Known as polysubstance abuse, the act of combining fentanyl with other substances can lead to worsened side effects when the drugs interact with each other.

Common side effects of mixing fentanyl with other drugs include:

  • shortness of breath or inability to breathe
  • coma
  • loss of coordination
  • agitation and confusion

Combining fentanyl with other drugs can also lead to overdose and even death.

Popular fentanyl drug combinations include:

Treatment Programs For Fentanyl Abuse And Addiction

Fentanyl abuse is highly dangerous, whether with just one use or for continuous abuse. Those addicted to opioids who use illicit forms of the drugs are particularly at risk, as many illicit doses of opioids are now laced with fentanyl.

Those abusing fentanyl or other opioids should seek treatment right away, both to access the best opportunity to enter recovery and to safeguard against overdose.

Opioids like fentanyl hijack the brain’s natural processes, affecting thoughts, habits, and behaviors. For this reason, the most intensive form of addiction treatment is used to treat fentanyl abuse: residential (inpatient) treatment.

Residential rehab programs for fentanyl abuse can help individuals stop the use of fentanyl by immersing them in the treatment environment and offering 24-hour medical care and support.

For more information on treatment programs for fentanyl abuse and addiction, contact a treatment specialist today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on November 12, 2020
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