Last April, the death of pop icon Prince sent shockwaves around the world. Toxicology reports revealed that the 57-year-old musician, who was reportedly taking painkillers, had overdosed on fentanyl, a potent opioid that’s behind a rising death toll in both the United States and Canada.
Here’s what you need to know.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s prescribed for severe pain, typically among patients with late-stage cancer. It’s been around since the 1960s when it was administered through an IV. Today, it’s also available through a lozenge or transdermal patch.
But the vast majority of recent fentanyl overdoses in the U.S. are linked to illicitly made fentanyl sold on the streets. Like heroin, fentanyl triggers a strong sense of euphoria and well-being.
But it’s actually 50 times stronger than heroin.
Fentanyl is the most powerful opioid known to man. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A mere two milligrams is enough to cause an overdose, and even touching or accidentally inhaling a small amount can have serious effects. Once fentanyl is in your system, it reaches your brain in minutes. Users can become comatose and stop breathing.
It’s often cut into other drugs.
Much of the time, users don’t know that they’re ingesting fentanyl. It’s cut into common street drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. In other cases, counterfeit prescription pills, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, contain fentanyl.
Why? It comes down to simple economics. Fentanyl is cheap to manufacture. Unlike heroin, it’s a synthetic opioid which can be manufactured with some basic knowledge of chemistry. But it’s also far more potent, which means that when added to other drug products, it can generate more money for dealers.
Like other opioids, fentanyl is addictive. But addictions don’t always start on the street. Some users get hooked when they are prescribed painkillers — for back pain or cancer pain.
But without adequate monitoring, they might have difficulty weaning themselves off the drug. When the prescription runs out, some patients find other ways to seek out painkillers.
You might be at risk.
Fentanyl isn’t just a risk for active drug abusers. Middle-class people in their early twenties and thirties are also at risk. In fact, many fentanyl news stories from Canada and the United States make a point of stressing users’ middle-class lives. Ultimately, anyone can become addicted.
It’s killing people in the U.S.
In 2013-2014, the number of illegally sourced drugs that tested positive for fentanyl increased by 426 percent. In 2015, fentanyl-related overdoses spiked by 72 percent, killing 9,580 Americans.
Naloxone can help.
In areas that have been hit hard by fentanyl overdoses, advocates believe that naloxone can help. Naloxone, when injected, quickly blocks the opioid receptors, canceling out the effects of drugs like fentanyl — though it can take as many as three injections of naloxone to reverse a fentanyl overdose. In Canada, advocates say safe injection sites can help to curb overdose deaths.