Fentanyl Overdose Symptoms

Dr. Saurabh Bhardwaj

Dr. Bhardwaj, Medical Director is a Board-Certified Addiction Psychiatrist (ABPN) and currently the Medical Director of Defining Wellness Center in Brandon MS. He is also an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Director of Center for Innovation & Discovery in Addictions (CIDA) at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He has been in Mississippi since 2018, building Addiction services for the state's only medical center and joined Defining Wellness Center in 2022 to provide specialized dual diagnostic services. He is a recipient of Ruth Fox scholarship from AAAP and trailblazer teaching award from UMMC. He is also a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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As overdose deaths have increased in America, so have deaths due to the drug fentanyl. Sadly, this is an element of the opioid overdose crisis sweeping the country. However, for people who are concerned about losing a loved one to fentanyl, there is good news: Fentanyl’s overdose symptoms are extremely easy to determine. Furthermore, with appropriate medical help followed by the right type of addiction treatment, people who overdose on fentanyl can recover and lead healthy lives.

What Is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an opioid, one of many that have become prominent in America since the 1990s. Like many opioids, it was invented for a medically necessary purpose: pain relief. Studies have shown that the drug is very powerful, potentially 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. Even for users of heroin, fentanyl is stronger as studies show that fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than many forms of heroin. When used properly, fentanyl can be a powerful drug that provides significant pain relief for users.

Unfortunately, with this impact comes a high risk of addiction and overdose. Fentanyl is a prescription drug and highly controlled substance, but when misused, it can turn into a potentially deadly drug just like many other opioids. Given its powerful impact, it is typically used only in cases where morphine or other common pain relievers simply will not work.

Fentanyl’s role in the opioid epidemic appears to be rising, particularly in terms of overdoses: A 2017 study found that 59% of all opioid deaths involved fentanyl, compared to a mere 14.3% of all deaths in 2010. This would indicate that not only is fentanyl use increasing, but its danger is increasing as well. This makes it all the more important that people know what a fentanyl overdose looks like and how it can be treated.

How Does Fentanyl Work?

Fentanyl works in a similar manner to many other prescription opioids in your body: It binds to your opioid receptors. This is responsible for many of its positive feelings, including euphoria and pain relief.

What makes fentanyl particularly dangerous is its unique chemical composition. As a result of the way the drug is chemically constructed, even a small dose of fentanyl can be extremely powerful. This explains why the drug can be so deadly, even in small doses, and especially to brand-new users who have never tried it before.

Thankfully, fentanyl’s chemical similarity to other opioids makes its symptoms of overdose more recognizable, leading to an increased chance of reversing the impact of an overdose and saving a user’s life.

How Is Fentanyl Taken?

When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl is used as as pall, pill, or lozenge that patients will suck on. Unfortunately, in many cases, fentanyl is illegally misdirected. In this case, patients or dealers will help a patient crush the drug, use it as a powder for snorting, or turn it into an eye drop or nasal spray. This use provides for a more powerful and more immediate high. It is also more dangerous.

It is also worth noting that fentanyl is often not taken on its own. Fentanyl is often “cut” into other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and more. This is because the drug is easy and cheap to make and will provide for a very powerful high. Tragically, this is very dangerous for users, who may not realize that they are using an even more powerful and addictive drug than they intended to. In many cases, cutting fentanyl into another drug will lead to an overdose.

What Are Fentanyl Overdose Symptoms?

Fentanyl overdoses can be deadly and are believed to be responsible for an increasing number of fatal overdoses every year. Fortunately, the symptoms of a fentanyl overdose are often highly recognizable. With immediate medical help, the symptoms of a fentanyl overdose can be quickly found and reversed.

Symptoms of a fentanyl overdose include the following:

  • Slowed or stopped breathing: Fentanyl can kill its users by slowing or stopping breathing. This reduces and eventually stops the oxygen that gets to the brain, leading to a condition known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to brain damage and eventually be fatal. Indeed, of all of the symptoms of fentanyl addiction, stopped breathing is likely the most fatal.
  • Slowed heart rate: It is important to realize that fentanyl can slow someone’s heart rate in a very similar manner to the way that it can slow someone’s breathing. If someone is showing shallow breathing and a slowed heart rate after taking a drug, it is likely that a user is overdosing on fentanyl. This drug can also lead to lower blood pressure.
  • Sleepiness or disorientation: A person who is high on fentanyl may have a difficult time staying fully conscious. They may appear extremely sleepy, express a desire to do nothing but close their eyes, and appear confused and cognitively disoriented. Vision will be difficult, and it is also highly likely that speech will be disoriented. In extreme cases, a fentanyl user can lose consciousness and become unresponsive to external stimuli.
  • Physical difficulties: Someone who is high on fentanyl may have trouble using their body and show signs of a loss of coordination. They may have a difficult time moving and be incapable of doing anything other than sitting or lying down.
  • Skin changes: A person who is overdosing on fentanyl may suddenly have skin that is cold or clammy. This is a classic sign of a fentanyl overdose.
  • Eye changes: People who are overdosing on fentanyl may have vision difficulty. Their pupils may appear smaller and more contracted, and they may have a difficult time with their vision. This, combined with other changes that fentanyl makes to the body, is largely responsible for the sudden appearance of a loss of coordination and other physical difficulties.
  • Itching: A classic overdose symptom is itchy skin. Someone who is using fentanyl may be scratching at their skin quite a bit, even to the point of irritation.

What Should You Do If You See Someone Overdose on Fentanyl?

Tragically, a fentanyl overdose can be fatal: Opioid rates increased 30% in 2020, with over 93,000 Americans losing their lives to this addiction. Many of these deaths were fentanyl-related.

If you see someone overdosing, call 911. With immediate medical attention, someone who overdoses on fentanyl can be revived and given the medical care they need.

Fortunately, even before paramedics arrive, there are things that a regular individual can do in order to reverse a fentanyl overdose. The past few years have seen the rise of a life-saving drug known as naloxone. Naloxone is a nasal spray that can be given to someone who is overdosing on an opioid. It works almost immediately, binding with someone’s opioid receptors and reversing the effects of an overdose. It has saved countless lives and is available for civilian use as it requires no specific medical training. However, individuals who are given naloxone are not immediately safe; they should be monitored by medical professionals in order to ensure that they continue to breathe and recover.

It is also worth noting that many states have passed Good Samaritan immunity laws. In some cases, someone may be using an illegal drug when they witness another person overdose. There is often a fear of calling 911, even to save that person’s life, as the individual in question may be committing a crime by using illegal drugs. These laws, passed in most states, provide for criminal immunity to individuals who call 911 even if they are using a narcotic. This is designed to encourage all people to call 911 to prevent a fatal overdose.

How Can Fentanyl Addiction Be Treated?

While the above symptoms can unquestionably be frightening and deadly, there is reason to be hopeful: As opioid overdoses have increased in America, so has treatment availability and the effectiveness of these treatments. Indeed, millions of Americans have overcome some sort of addiction, including opioid addiction, and now lead healthy lives in recovery.

Fentanyl addiction can be treated in a wide number of ways. This includes:

  • Outpatient treatment, during which a person who is using fentanyl will receive therapeutic services but return to their homes at the end of every day. This can be in the form of medicated assisted therapy, counseling, or group therapy.
  • Inpatient treatment, which is a more intense form of treatment. It is residential therapy, meaning that a person will stay at a treatment center for a set period of time. These individuals will be monitored 24/7 in order to ensure that they continue to not use any drugs and may be given a wide array of therapeutic services.
  • Therapy and counseling, which involves someone talking to a therapist who is trained in how to help people recover from addiction. This therapy will likely involve the development of more positive coping strategies, a review of someone’s past traumas, and an examination of why they became addicted to fentanyl in the first place.
  • Medicated Assisted Treatment, or MAT. Thankfully, the past few decades have seen the advent of many new forms of medication that allow for an opioid addiction to be treated with medication. This medication can reduce cravings and help to manage withdrawal symptoms. They can often be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Some professionals have referred to a combination of MAT and counseling as the “gold standard” for recovery treatment.

In many cases, multiple treatments are employed in getting to the root of addiction and finding coping strategies for the future. The strategy involves controlling cravings and understanding the kinds of triggers that make you want to use the drug. From there, a strategy of removing stressors and creating positive support groups for you is a crucial step in ensuring that you are successful once you leave treatment. Self-care, life-building skills, and community involvement are all common strategies.

If you are worried about a loved one’s opioid addiction or you are concerned about the possibility of losing a loved one to a fentanyl overdose, you should learn more about addiction treatment. Though it can be difficult, opioid addiction can be overcome, and people who are treated for opioid addiction can live a sober lifestyle again.

If you live in the Mississippi area and are in need of opioid addiction treatment, reach out to Defining Wellness Centers. At Defining Wellness, our philosophy is simple: Recovery is a lifelong process and a powerful way of living. We have decades of experience in operating dual diagnosis programs and can help you get the help you need and deserve. Don’t wait: Visit our website or call today at 855-790-9303 to learn more about how we help people overcome addiction.

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