Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are the most common drugs in drug overdose deaths to date. In 2017 over half of all opioid overdose deaths involved fentanyl.
What makes fentanyl particularly dangerous is that another illicit drug can be laced with it, and there would be no way of knowing without testing the substance. The fact that fentanyl is essentially undetectable can make it easy for people to consume it unknowingly.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Like other opioids, doctors prescribe fentanyl to treat severe pain, typically after surgery.
Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, meaning that while it does have a legitimate medical use, it also has a high potential for causing dependence and addiction.
Brand names of prescription fentanyl include:
Types of Fentanyl
When prescribed medically, fentanyl is administered in one of the following ways:
- Intravenous shots
- Patches (like a nicotine patch)
- Lozenges (similar to a cough drop)
When used illegally and purely for recreational purposes, fentanyl can be found in powder form, nasal sprays, pills, and even drops on a small piece of blotting paper. Some fentanyl abusers will chew or suck on patches or scrape the medication from patches to take intravenously.
Additionally, more and more fentanyl is making its way into the U.S. in the form of counterfeit pills made to look like prescription drugs—including illicit benzodiazepines and painkillers.
Since these pills are not regulated, they often contain deadly amounts of fentanyl. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that about two in every five counterfeit pills have a lethal dose of fentanyl.
Over the years, fentanyl has become a popular substance to lace or “cut” other drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Adding fentanyl to these illegal drugs makes them cheaper to produce since fentanyl is such a potent substance.
Mixing fentanyl with other drugs has led to an increase in overdose deaths because the people taking illicit drugs often do not know that they contain fentanyl. New formations like rainbow fentanyl have had parents fearing their children being given it without knowledge.
Legal VS Illicit Fentanyl
There are two main types of fentanyl: medically prescribed legal fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl. While medical fentanyl is often prescribed and monitored by a doctor and FDA-regulated, illicit fentanyl is manufactured in foreign labs and brought into the U.S. through Mexico.
Since illicit fentanyl is not manufactured through official healthcare channels, there is no way to know how much fentanyl is in each dose. In a recent DEA study, over 40% of illicit pills tested for fentanyl contained at least two milligrams of the drug, which is considered a lethal dose. In fact, some pills tested had over five milligrams of fentanyl, which is more than twice the lethal dose.
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, making it 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanil is considered a Schedule II substance and is predominantly used as a tranquilizing agent for elephants and other large mammals.
While the lethal dose for humans is unknown, the DEA, local law enforcement, and first responders have noticed an increase in carfentanil on the streets, often disguised as heroin.
Fentanyl Abuse Statistics
Due to the strength of fentanyl and the way it affects the brain, fentanyl is one of the most abused narcotics available. Even if obtained legally with a doctor’s prescription, there is a high risk of abuse and addiction.
The DEA confiscated nearly 60 million lethal doses of fentanyl in the last two years. It isn’t just illicit fentanyl either that is being abused. In 2020, over 300,000 people in the U.S. misused prescription fentanyl.
Fentanyl Abuse VS Other Opioids
According to a 2020 SAMHSA study, roughly 14.8% of all fentanyl users in the past year abused the substance compared to the abuse rate for the following opioids:
- Buprenorphine: 26.5%
- Hydromorphone: 16.6%
- Hydrocodone: 12.6%
- Oxycodone: 14.5%
- Codeine: 12.2%
- Tramadol: 9%
- Morphine: 8.9%
Fentanyl Addiction Statistics
According to a study by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), 5% of all urine specimens in clinics dealing in primary care, substance abuse, and pain management tested positive for fentanyl.
Below are some addiction statistics about opioid addiction, including fentanyl:
- Over 2 million Americans 12 and older suffer from an opioid use disorder
- Over 20% of all people with a substance abuse issue have an opioid addiction
- Opioid abuse was one of the leading causes of overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2020
Fentanyl Overdose Statistics
Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the U.S.
Below are some more facts about fentanyl overdose:
- In a two-year period from 2020 to 2021, overdose deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids rose by over 50%
- From May 2019 to May 2020, there were over 40,000 fentanyl-related overdose deaths
- Fentanyl overdoses outnumber prescription opioid overdoses by over 500%
- Over 50% of all overdose deaths are fentanyl-related
- Asphyxiation is the leading cause of death with fentanyl overdoses
- From 2012 to 2018, fentanyl overdose death rates increased by over 1,000%
While the overdose numbers are still high, new measures have been implemented to help with opioid overdose prevention. Over the past few years, opioid antidotes such as naloxone (i.e., Narcan®) have become readily available to help reverse the effects of an overdose.
Fentanyl and the Opioid Epidemic
The current wave of the opioid epidemic that the United States is facing began in 2013 and has mainly centered around synthetic opioids, including fentanyl. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) declared a public health emergency due to the drastic number of opioid-related addictions and deaths.
Below are some additional statistics about the opioid epidemic in the United States:
- According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths in the US has quadrupled from 1999 to 2019
- In that same time frame, nearly half a million people have died from an opioid overdose
- Two out of every three overdose deaths in 2018 involved an opioid
- The number of prescriptions for naloxone, the medication designed to reverse opioid overdose symptoms, doubled from 2017 to 2018
- In 2016, the rate of opioid-related hospitalizations nationally was 297 per 100,000
- From July 2016 through September 2017, opioid-related ER visits rose 30%
- In a little less than 1% of all hospital births, the baby is born with a case of neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome
Opioid-Related Issues During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in drug and alcohol use throughout the United States. With many people unable to leave their homes amidst the stress of a global pandemic, some turned to drugs and alcohol at higher than average rates. In turn, these drug and alcohol habits led to an increase in overdose deaths.
According to the CDC, between May 2019 and May 2020, there were over 80,000 overdose deaths in the United States, the highest number of overdose deaths recorded in a 12-month period. Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were the biggest reason for the increase in overdose deaths from the previous year.
Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction
Getting treatment is crucial for those struggling with fentanyl abuse and addiction. Between addiction treatment programs, medication, and counseling options, a person seeking help for a fentanyl addiction has many choices.
Fentanyl addiction treatment programs, also known as rehab, come in different levels of care. Inpatient rehab programs provide a live-in situation for patients recovering from fentanyl addiction. Typically, patients stay at an inpatient facility for 30-90 days.
Treatment at an inpatient rehab program will consist of in-person and group therapy and healthy activities, such as exercise and nutrition counseling.
However, rehab also exists in an outpatient capacity. There are two main types of outpatient rehab: Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP).
PHP offers patients the same level of care as an inpatient facility but allows the recovering addict to return home at the end of each day. Meanwhile, IOP patients will visit a treatment center a few times weekly to work with individual counselors and attend group therapy sessions.
Medication and Counseling for Fentanyl Addiction
As with other opioids, treatment for fentanyl addiction often utilizes medication-assisted treatment and counseling.
Medications help those suffering from fentanyl addiction, especially during detox and early treatment when the withdrawal symptoms are at their worst.
Common medications used to treat fentanyl addiction include:
In addition to medication-assisted treatment, behavioral therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often used to help identify the triggers that led to addiction and teach recovering addicts more healthy ways to deal with triggers and cravings in the future.
Get Help for a Problem With Fentanyl
If you or someone you know is suffering from fentanyl abuse or addiction, it is vital to seek help immediately. Many treatment facilities specialize in opioid and fentanyl treatment.
Call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their online program locator to find fentanyl addiction treatment options in your area.
Frequently Asked Questions About Fentanyl
What is fentanyl used for?
Fentanyl is typically prescribed to treat chronic pain or severe pain after surgery. It is incredibly potent—50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Where does fentanyl come from?
The majority of fentanyl found in the United States comes from China and Mexico. However, the DEA reports that India has recently emerged as an additional source for fentanyl powder and fentanyl precursor chemicals.
What are the dangers of fentanyl?
Fentanyl is 50-100 times more potent than morphine, and even the smallest dosage can be considered deadly. Since it is so strong, it is also highly addictive.
What’s the difference between fentanyl and heroin?
Heroin is considered a natural opioid and is derived from the opium poppy plant. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger and more potent than heroin.
What is the current level of fentanyl use in the US?
In 2018, there were 4 million fentanyl prescription issues in the U.S. Most fentanyl-related overdoses in the U.S. occur in the Midatlantic, the Midwest, New England, and Appalachia.
What do the statistics say about the rise of fentanyl use?
According to research in May 2022, 5% of all urine specimens taken for substance abuse, primary care, and pain management tested positive for fentanyl. Additionally, from May 2020 to April 2021, more than 100,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, with over 60% related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
How does fentanyl work?
Like other opioids, fentanyl attaches itself to the opioid receptors in the brain. After repeated use, the brain becomes dependent on fentanyl, requiring more and more of it to achieve the same effect.