Fentanyl Addiction: Health Effects & Treatment Options
What Is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is an extremely strong opioid drug (about 50-100x stronger than morphine) that is prescribed to people who have severe pain that cannot be managed by other opioid painkillers.1
Fentanyl is often sold under various brand names (including Actiq, Duragesic, and Subsys) in various forms, including nasal spray, lozenges, sublingual tablets, and injections.1
However, while fentanyl can be legally prescribed, fentanyl is increasingly being illegally produced for street distribution and is often used as cheap filler in heroin, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), meth, and counterfeit pills without the buyer’s knowledge. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, or IMF, has driven the huge rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. since 2013.2,3 Drug users who have little to no interest in fentanyl may be exposed to it regularly by using other substances contaminated with it. For example, research shows that in Rhode Island, heroin is very commonly adulterated with fentanyl and that, while the demand for fentanyl is low, exposure is very high. This puts users at a high risk of overdose.3
Fentanyl works to dull the body’s response to pain and may be abused for its ability to produce a rush of pleasure (euphoria). Short-term side effects may include:4
- Slowed breathing.
- Loss of consciousness.
Is Fentanyl Addictive?
Yes, fentanyl is addictive. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies fentanyl as a Schedule II drug, which means that while it has legitimate medical uses, it has a great potential for abuse and dependence.5
All opioids have the potential for misuse and addiction, and fentanyl’s speed of onset as well as potency allows it to quickly produce a rapid and powerful—but short-lived—high, which contributes to its addictive potential.6
Physiological dependence on fentanyl may develop quickly. Once an individual is dependent on an opioid drug, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking opioids, which can lead to increasingly severe problems, including addiction.4
What Are the Signs of Fentanyl Addiction?
When a person misuses fentanyl or other opioids, they can become addicted. According to the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used by treatment professionals to diagnose mental health and substance use disorders, a person who has a fentanyl addiction (clinically termed an opioid use disorder) will exhibit at least 2 of the following signs of an opioid use disorder in a 12-month period:7
- Spending a lot of time on getting, using, and recovering from fentanyl.
- Taking more fentanyl or taking it for longer than intended.
- Continuing fentanyl use despite interpersonal conflict created or worsened by use.
- Continuing fentanyl use despite knowledge that has created or worsened a physical or mental condition.
- Decreasing ability to fulfill obligations at home or work due to fentanyl use.
- Increasing prioritization of fentanyl over important social or occupational activities.
- Opioid cravings.
- Using fentanyl even when it is dangerous, such as using while driving.
- Trying but not succeeding to cut back on or stop using fentanyl.
- Tolerance to fentanyl, or needing to use more to experience the effects.
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms when trying to cut back on or quit fentanyl.
Signs of Prescription Fentanyl Abuse
People who are prescribed fentanyl may become addicted to the medication, especially if they start misusing fentanyl by:8
- Taking fentanyl in ways it was not prescribed.
- Getting fentanyl from someone else (e.g., taking another person’s prescription or buying it illegally).
- Taking fentanyl to get high.
Some signs of prescription fentanyl misuse include:9
- Asking for additional prescriptions after claiming prescriptions were stolen or lost.
- Engaging in “doctor shopping” (attempting to get prescriptions from several doctors).
- Claiming that pain is increasing with no evidence that the pain-causing condition has worsened.
- A refusal to consider any form of treatment that doesn’t involve an opioid painkiller.
- Signs of overmedication, e.g., drowsiness and poor coordination.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Fentanyl Misuse?
When a person uses fentanyl or other opioids, over a longer period of time, they can experience numerous health effects, both physical and mental, that may include:8,10,11
- Severe constipation.
- Increased impulsivity.
- Depression and other mood disorders.
- Hormonal imbalances in men and women.
- Sexual dysfunction in men.
- Irregular periods in women.
- Increased risk of fractures in the elderly.
- Increased heart attack risk.
- Lowered immunity.
- Severe physiological dependence.
- Opioid use disorder (addiction).
Fentanyl overdoses are a very real possibility when people use fentanyl. In fact, synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) were involved in more than 36,300 overdose deaths in 2019.12
Signs of Fentanyl Overdose
The signs of a fentanyl overdose are the same as any opioid overdose and include:13
- Slowed, shallow, or stopped breathing.
- Tiny pinpoint pupils.
- Extreme sleepiness or loss of consciousness.
- Cold, pale, or blue skin.
- Gurgling or choking noises.
- Limp muscles.
If you think someone has overdosed on fentanyl, immediately call 911 13 If you have the prescription medication naloxone, you may administer it to help reverse the life-threatening slowed or stopped breathing caused by of a fentanyl overdose. 13 Once you’ve administered naloxone, watch to see if the person begins to breathe normally or regains consciousness s within 2-3 minutes. If not, administer a second dose.14
Stay with the individual until emergency responders arrive and make sure to put them on their side with their top knee bent to prevent choking.13
There are various ways to treat fentanyl dependence and addiction (or an opioid use disorder), many of which involve a combination of therapy and medication.16,17
Fentanyl Withdrawal & Detox
When you stop taking fentanyl or other opioids, you will experience withdrawal symptoms within a few hours.4 Some of the most common fentanyl withdrawal include:4
- Muscle and bone pain.
- Strong opioid cravings.
Fentanyl withdrawal symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and incredibly difficult. People who experience withdrawal symptoms risk a return to opioid use in order to avoid withdrawal.4 In medical detox, you can receive medications to relieve your symptoms and manage opioid cravings, and know that you are in the safe hands of medical professionals who will monitor your condition and handle any medical complications.18
Rehab for Fentanyl Abuse
Addiction treatment may be inpatient or outpatient:19
- Inpatient rehab involves 24/7 treatment in a residential environment. Therapy (individual and group) and healthy structure/habits are emphasized.
- Outpatient treatment allows a person to receive treatment during the day and return home to their own residence. Outpatient treatment comes in various levels of intensity:
- Partial hospitalization: treatment many hours per day, most days per week (about 5 days per week or more at 6 hours per day).
- Intensive outpatient: similar to partial hospitalization but slightly fewer hours (3-hour sessions, 3-5x per week).
- Standard outpatient: least intensive form of outpatient treatment, often used as a form of aftercare for someone who has completed a higher level of care.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)—medications (methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone) used in conjunction with behavioral therapies—has been proven effective for treating opioid use disorders.17 MAT may be initiated or continued from detox in both inpatient and outpatient programs. At AdCare, MAT is offered as part of our treatment approach to treating any opioid addiction.
If you or your loved one needs help with fentanyl addiction, call AdCare today to talk with us about your treatment options. If you have healthcare coverage, it may be possible to use your insurance to cover all or part of your treatment. You can to see what coverage may be available to you for treatment for fentanyl addiction or you can call us for immediate help at .