An opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl is extremely addictive.1 The drug has a high overdose potential, and even people who follow their doctor’s instructions for using fentanyl can quickly become victims of addiction.
In addition to having a high potential for addiction, many people who use fentanyl also experience severe side effects.
Fentanyl: The Basics
The FDA has categorized fentanyl is a schedule II controlled substance. The medication was first developed in 1960 and was marketed to doctors as an option for patients who were experiencing severe pain. Fentanyl is one of just a few opiates approved by the FDA for long-term use. Likely, the false assurance that fentanyl is a simple answer for long-term pain is a likely factor in the severe addiction to the drug that many people experience.
Forms of Fentanyl
Fentanyl comes in many different forms, which may be a part of the reason why so many people misuse the drug. Forms of fentanyl include:
- injectable liquid
- dissolvable film strips
- nasal spray
- sublingual dissolving tablets (dissolve under the tongue)
- transdermal patches (a patch applied topically)
Fentanyl has several street names, including tango & cash, He-man, great bear, Goodfellas, China girl, China town, China white, apace, poison, and dance fever.1 Pharmaceutical names for fentanyl include Duragesic, Sublimaze, and Actiq.1
Why Do People Use Fentanyl?
There are several reasons why a doctor would prescribe fentanyl to a patient. Many prescriptions for fentanyl are written for people who are dealing with terminal cancer who are experiencing breakthrough pain (not chronic pain).
In addition to using fentanyl in a way that’s prescribed by a physician, some people use fentanyl to experience a high. People who experience a fentanyl high may feel extreme happiness, confusion, sedation, and drowsiness.3 Fentanyl use can create a sense of disconnect with the world and may be used to cope with both physical and psychological pain.
The use of fentanyl can also result in unpleasant short-term side effects while the user is experiencing a high. These may include constipation, nausea, problems breathing, and unconsciousness.3 Side effects may be more severe when fentanyl is taken in larger quantities than prescribed by a physician.
Fentanyl Abuse/Addiction Side Effects
In addition to the short-term side effects that a user may experience when they take fentanyl intending to experience a high, more serious side effects may occur over periods of long-term fentanyl use.
While some people take fentanyl illegally from the start of their use, many others begin using fentanyl after receiving a prescription for the drug from their doctor. People in this category may quickly build up a tolerance to the drug, needing more and more of it to get the same effect.4
Research has shown that the number of emergency room visits for issues with the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals has risen sharply in recent years. In 2011, there were 1,244,872 emergency room visits associated with the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals, and 29% of those visits involved narcotic pain relievers like fentanyl. In addition to these visits, 138,130 visits were associated with other opioids or opiates, such as heroin mixed with fentanyl.5 Many of these visits were related to a suspected overdose.
Prescription vs. Non-Prescription Fentanyl Use
While some people use fentanyl after receiving a prescription from their doctor, others purchase the drug illegally. Some people who initially receive a prescription make a transition to using in a way not approved by their doctor. This could include taking fentanyl in a different form than the one they were originally prescribed, taking more of the drug than prescribed, or taking the drug more often than prescribed.
Some people who struggle with fentanyl addiction find that the amount prescribed by their doctor is not enough to get them through to their next prescription refill. This can result in “doctor shopping,” in which a patient gets prescriptions from several different doctors without revealing that they already have other prescriptions for opioids.
While some people buy illegal fentanyl from drug dealers on the street, others turn to a more convenient method of purchase – the internet. Dark web purchases have grown more common in recent years, making it easier than ever for people who are addicted to fentanyl to continue down the path of addiction.6
While fentanyl use always poses a danger to the user, taking fentanyl without a doctor’s supervision can be especially hazardous. Some people unnecessarily fear that they’ll get into trouble with the law for seeking help after using without a doctor’s supervision, and this can stop them from reaching out to a treatment facility to get the help that they need.
Signs of Fentanyl Addiction
There are many physical and behavioral signs of fentanyl addiction. Physical signs of fentanyl addiction include experiencing withdrawal symptoms as soon as a few hours after the last dose of fentanyl was taken. Withdrawal symptoms can include severe drug cravings, uncontrollable leg movements, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goosebumps, muscle and bone pain, and sleep problems.4
Behavioral signs of addiction can be harder to identify, as many people who are struggling with addiction have adapted to lying to cover up addictive behaviors. Hyper-focus on getting more of the drug, stealing to get money to purchase more fentanyl, withdrawal from normal activities, and extreme mood swings can all be signs of fentanyl addiction.
Potential Complications of Fentanyl Use
Long-term physical effects of fentanyl use can be devastating. People who use fentanyl regularly over time may experience respiratory impairment, menstrual and other reproductive problems, chronic constipation, reduced libido, and mood instability.7 These factors can make recovery from fentanyl addiction more difficult than other drugs.
Using fentanyl in combination with other drugs (including alcohol, benzodiazepines, and MAOI anti-depressants) can increase the likelihood of severe complications (such as respiratory failure) and/or death.7
In addition to direct complications from fentanyl use, additional risks can arise if the drug is used intravenously. Many people who use fentanyl do not use clean needles, and this can result in an increased risk of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS. Even if clean needles are used, repeated injections can cause vein damage, and can increase a person’s risk for infection and abscesses.7
Many people who become addicted to fentanyl neglect self-care. Living in an unclean environment or neglecting personal hygiene can increase the likelihood that a person will experience negative consequences from injecting the drug.
Fentanyl Addiction Treatment
Thankfully, recovery from fentanyl addiction is possible. The process of recovery takes time and doesn’t happen overnight.
Therapies that can be used successfully to treat fentanyl addiction may include:
- Motivational interviewing: Many people who begin treatment for fentanyl addiction are not confident in their ability to recover. Motivational interviewing can both help the person suffering from addiction to recognize how their addiction has negatively impacted their life and their relationships and to realize that a life without fentanyl is possible. Motivational interviewing can build self-confidence and bolster belief in the recovery process.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, works to identify problematic thought patterns and the behaviors that accompany these thoughts. The person suffering from addiction and their cognitive-behavioral therapist will work together to re-route destructive patterns, making it easier for the person struggling with addiction to maintain sobriety outside of the rehab environment.
- Trigger identification and avoidance: It’s vital to have an aftercare problem in place after formal treatment is complete. Many people who go through a successful rehab program find that they relapse once they return to the pressures of daily life. During rehab, it’s necessary to identify triggers and develop a comprehensive plan to deal with these issues when they arise. Many people feel that once they detox, they’ll be able to manage issues in daily life, however, this can be impossible if a plan to handle stress and triggers is not in place.
Levels of Fentanyl Addiction Treatment Care
When people who are struggling with addiction decide that it’s time to get well, it can be tough to decide which level of treatment makes the most sense. Both doctors and therapists can weigh in on what level of treatment makes the most sense for the start of a patient’s recovery.
Levels of addiction treatment offered at Harmony Place include:
- Detox: Many people who struggle with addiction put off getting the treatment they need due to fear of the detoxification process. While detox can be uncomfortable, it’s an important part of the path to recovery. Going through detox at home or alone can be dangerous, and even fatal. Working with a medical treatment team through the process can make detox as safe, comfortable, and fast as possible.
- Residential Treatment: During inpatient treatment, patients live at the treatment facility. This allows patients to receive 24-hour care, as well as the benefit of exposure to many different types of therapy. Patients at residential treatment facilities also get the benefit of forming bonds with others who are at a similar stage in their recovery.
- Outpatient Treatment: Taking time away from work and family responsibilities to attend inpatient treatment can be difficult. Luckily, outpatient treatment is also a viable option. During outpatient treatment, patients can get the treatment they need to begin their recovery while also attending to work and family responsibilities.
- Dual Diagnosis: For patients who struggle with both addiction and an additional mental health issue, dual diagnosis treatment can be helpful. During dual diagnosis treatment, patients work to address the intersection of addiction and mental health issues and work to create a sustainable plan to deal with cravings and triggers after treatment.
- Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): A combination of behavioral therapy and medications like buprenorphine, Suboxone, and/or naltrexone, medication-assisted therapy can help people who are struggling with addiction to maintain their sobriety long-term. Some medications used for MAT have abuse potential, so a treatment team needs to monitor medication-assisted treatment closely.
- Aftercare/Alumni Program: After treatment, it’s essential to continue working through the recovery process. People who struggle with fentanyl addiction and finish rehab may move onto sober living facilities, 12-step meetings, behavioral therapy, and more.
Ready For a Change? We’re Here For You.
At Harmony Place, we understand how hard it can be to ask for help, and we’re here to provide you with the support that you need to get well. You’re not alone if you’re struggling with fentanyl addiction. We know that you didn’t intend to become addicted, and you’ve likely found yourself in a downward spiral, and no matter how hard you’ve tried, you haven’t been able to turn things around on your own.
We get it, and we’re here for you. By taking the time to research treatment facilities, you’re already on the right path to getting your life back.
The first step in getting well is to pick up the phone to learn more about our treatment programs. When you call us, you’ll talk with one of our caring staff members about how we can help you begin to get your life back, one healthy decision at a time. You deserve to live a happy, healthy, sober life, and we’ll be there with you every step of the way.
1Drug Enforcement Agency. Fentanyl.
2Food and Drug Administration. General Drug Categories.
3National Institute on Drug Abuse. Fentanyl DrugFacts.
4County of Los Angeles Public Health. Fentanyl.
5Crane, Dr. E.H., Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Emergency Department Visits Involving Narcotic Pain Relievers.
6Khazan, O. The Surprising Ease of Buying Fentanyl Online. (2018). The Atlantic.
7Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Fentanyl.