A Deeper Look into Fentanyl


Updated on 07/03/23

When someone is in extreme pain, like after surgery or stemming from cancer, they may need powerful medications for comfort and relief. Medications such as morphine and fentanyl can give the relief that these patients need and, when used appropriately, they are effective tools. Unfortunately, these medications can be and often are misused. The misuse of fentanyl can lead to devastating, even deadly consequences.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid medication used to treat people suffering from severe pain. It is also used to treat chronic pain in people that have developed a high tolerance for other opioids. Fentanyl is similar to morphine, but it is 50-to-100 times more powerful. Although it is legally only available with a prescription, fentanyl is made and sold illegally. In recent years, fentanyl-related overdose deaths have been on the rise. In 2010, they accounted for 14.3% of overdose deaths. That number had grown to 59% by 2017. 

How People Ingest Fentanyl

People who have fentanyl prescribed by their doctor can take it by injection, by mouth as a lozenge, or wear a patch on the skin. Illegal fentanyl can come in many different forms, such as pills that look like other opioids, powder, on blotter paper, or in eye droppers or nasal spray. In some cases, people who use fentanyl will get the gel out of the patches and inject it or ingest it orally. This is a dangerous practice because it speeds up the delivery of the drug, which can lead to addiction, respiratory depression or death.

Fentanyl can be used by itself, but drug dealers are mixing it with other substances like heroin, meth and MDMA. All it takes is a small amount of fentanyl to deliver a powerful high, making it a cheaper option resulting in higher profits for the dealers.

Dangers of Drug Interactions with Fetanyl

Drugs.com lists 546 medications that have known interactions with fentanyl. These medications can have variable effects on fentanyl, from minor to deadly. They can change fentanyl’s peak, duration, half-life, effectiveness and onset. When fentanyl is used with other medications that affect breathing and serotonin levels, other narcotics (including cough medicines), sedatives, tranquilizers and antipsychotic medication, it can have negative effects. 

Fentanyl’s Mechanism of Action in the Brain and Effects on the Body

Its lipophilic (fat-loving) nature means that fentanyl can move quickly into the central nervous system. Fentanyl has analgesic and anesthetic properties and binds to opioid receptors that are found in areas of the brain that control pain and emotions. Specifically, it binds to the mu-receptors. When fentanyl binds to these receptors, it creates a feeling of euphoria and relaxation by increasing dopamine levels in the brain’s reward centers. Tolerance to fentanyl can be developed quickly, leading to a need to use higher doses over time to achieve the same effect. The brain becomes less sensitive to the medication and, eventually, it becomes hard for the person using it to feel pleasure from anything else. 

Fentanyl can have several different effects on the brain and body:

  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Euphoria and extreme happiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sedation

Risk of Fentanyl Overdose

Fentanyl does have an elevated overdose risk due to its high potency. Overdose can lead to respiratory depression and hypoxia. This lack of oxygen to the brain can cause coma, brain damage or even death. 

For people who knowingly use fentanyl with other drugs, or unknowingly because it was used to cut other drugs they are using, it can be difficult to know which drug is causing the overdose. Fentanyl overdose, as well as overdose from other opioids, is treated with naloxone. Naloxone rapidly binds to opioid receptors blocking the effects of fentanyl. 

Addictive Nature of Fentanyl

Fentanyl is extremely addictive because of its sheer potency. Even someone taking fentanyl exactly as their doctor prescribes can develop dependence, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. Dependence can lead to a drug addiction.

When someone is addicted to drugs, they will engage in compulsive drug seeking and drug use that can be difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. When someone is addicted to drugs, they continue to use them even though they cause health problems or issues at work, school or home. 

When fentanyl is stopped, withdrawal symptoms can begin as soon as a few hours after the last dose. These symptoms can be severe and extremely uncomfortable. Some of them are:

  • Bone and joint aches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle spasms
  • Yawning
  • Gooseflesh

The discomfort caused by these symptoms is one reason that stopping fentanyl is so difficult. 

Treating Fentanyl Addiction

Like treatment for other opioid addictions, the treatment for fentanyl addiction is a combination of medication and therapy. 

Buprenorphine and methadone work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as fentanyl, reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Another medicine, naltrexone, blocks opioid receptors and prevents fentanyl from having an effect. People can discuss treatment options with their health provider.

Behavioral therapies, such as motivational interviewing, contingency management and cognitive behavioral therapy, can help people with fentanyl addictions modify behaviors and attitudes surrounding substance use. 

There is hope for anyone dealing with a fentanyl addiction. Treatment is available and recovery is possible at Casa Palmera.

Fentanyl use can lead to physical, mental health and social problems. If you are ready to quit using fentanyl, you can find the help you need to start healing at Casa Palmera. While here, you will be surrounded by supportive, caring and knowledgeable staff. Our staff members have years of combined experience and represent a variety of backgrounds and treatment modalities. Substance use is a complex issue so we will do more than treat your symptoms; we will work with you to uncover the issues you need to tackle to help you maintain abstinence. Call Casa Palmera now at (855) 508-0473.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.