Heroin Laced with Fentanyl is Causing a Spike in Overdose Deaths

Fentanyl has been causing overdose deaths to spike since 2010. Learn about how drug dealers are lacing heroin with fentanyl…and get prepared to prevent overdose here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Fentanyl is causing a spike in overdose deaths. This article uncovers why this is happening and how we can stop it. We invite your questions at the end.


Table of Contents:

What is Fentanyl?

In short, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid which has similar effects to morphine. It is anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent as known opiates like heroin, morphine, or codeine. [1]

Medically, people are given fentanyl to treat severe pain. But dosage is highly regulated due to its strong effects. [2] Historically, it has even been used as a large mammal tranquilizer or pain reliever. For these reasons, there is a great chance for it to be abused and, inevitably, the person who takes it can trigger an addiction.

According to the DEA, common fentanyl prescription names are:

  • Actiq
  • Duragesic
  • Sublimaze

However, the street names for fentanyl are:

  • Apache
  • China Girl
  • China White
  • Dance Fever
  • Friend
  • Goodfella
  • Jackpot
  • Murder 8
  • TNT
  • Tango and Cash [3]

To understand the drug itself better, we should take a look at how it affects the brain and body.

As with other opioids, fentanyl attaches itself to opioid receptors in the brain. These are responsible for how you regulate various feelings, such as pain and pleasure. Via neurotransmission, the opioid dumps chemicals throughout your body, triggering a heavy euphoria and causing the brain to change the way it perceives pain. [4]

How Do You Get Addicted?

So, how does one become addicted to this chemical?

Addiction isn’t a choice. Nobody chooses to become addicted to a drug. Instead, the complex disease has to do with how drugs chemically affect the brain. Combined with genetics and environment, the physical effects make it super hard to quit.

When someone first takes fentanyl, the brain has the initial reaction mentioned above. Since this is a good feeling, it naturally wants more. When somebody takes fentanyl over time, the brain and body start to develop a tolerance to the drug in which it needs more of it in order to feel the initial effects. [5] And this dependence on the drug makes it hard to physically quit. When you do quit, withdrawal symptoms manifest.

When someone is addicted, they seek drugs compulsively and have the inability to stop despite any negative consequences it brings into their life. For this reason, addiction is professionally referenced as a disease rather than a choice. [6]

Why Do Drug Dealers Lace Heroin with Fentanyl?

There are two reasons a drug dealer may lace heroin with fentanyl:

  1. To make more of a profit.
  2. To get people coming back.

These two reasons are related to one another. Simply put, drug dealers make more of a profit with regular customers. And because fentanyl is cheap and widely available, it’s easy for drug dealers to multiply their profits by cutting it into dope.

Heroin on its own is a very dangerous drug. But that’s the pure form. The truth is…unless you test a street drug, you don’t know what’s going into it. Furthermore, users don’t know how many dealers the drug has already gone through. It’s very possible the drug has been cut numerous times as its already gone through multiple dealers.

What Are the Dangers in Fentanyl?

The first danger is overdose. Fentanyl is tens of times stronger than the strongest opiate. And people who use it die because their hearts stop beating and they stop breathing.

The second danger is an addiction. Fentanyl is highly addictive and people who are offered it have to be careful of this risk as it comes with a series of other dangers. [7] There are true risks to your health that can be divided into two categories; short-term and long-term effects.

Short-term health effects are hazards that can happen immediately after taking the drug. Long-term health effects come from using fentanyl for a long period of time. [8]  The body and brain not only adapt to the drug but also begin depending on to the point of deteriorating. Some of the short-term effects of fentanyl use are:

  • Altered heart rate
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Constricted pupils
  • Hallucinations
  • Itchy skin
  • Nausea
  • Seizures
  • Slowed breathing
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting

Long-term effects of fentanyl use are:

  • Harms towards your personal life and relationship.
  • Heightening problems with mental health conditions, such as depression.
  • Higher chance of overdose and death.
  • Increased risk of anoxic injury.
  • Increased risk of organ damage.

Again, the greatest long-term health risks of fentanyl is overdose and potential death. This is a rising problem in America. Fentanyl is only fueling the opioid epidemic even further.

Fentanyl’s Responsibility in Overdose Deaths

Fentanyl has been found to cause nearly half of opioid-related overdose deaths in past months. In fact, fentanyl has had such an influence in the opioid epidemic, it has surpassed prescription opioid’s overdose death involvement. For example,when fentanyl was involved in 3,007 (14.3%) of opioid-related deaths in 2010. In 2016, that number rose to 19,413 (45.9%) overdose deaths.

So, why is fentanyl causing so many deaths?

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. If someone hasn’t developed a tolerance to opioids and takes fentanyl, their risk of overdose is much higher as it’s so potent of a drug.

Furthermore, fentanyl is often cut with heroin. People who struggle with a heroin addiction often don’t know whether or not fentanyl is in their dose nor how much of their drug has been laced. This can lead to accidentally taking too much fentanyl and, in turn, overdosing on it.

It’s important to inform yourself of the overdose symptoms commonly caused by fentanyl in case an emergency requires. [9] These symptoms include:

  • Blue fingernails
  • Blue lips
  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Gray or ashen skin
  • Intense drowsiness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Slow, irregular breathing
  • Slow, irregular heartbeat
  • Unconsciousness

If you or anyone you know faces an overdose, you need to call emergency services immediately. A drug overdose occurs when someone takes too much of a drug or is sensitive to a specific drug. [10] Usually, in terms of an opioid overdose, someone has taken so much that they’re not reactive to stimulation or breathing is insufficient.

The reason for this is that opioids attach themselves to receptors which are responsible for the unconscious drive to breathe. When someone doesn’t breath – or isn’t breathing enough – oxygen levels within the bloodstream begin to decline.

Eventually, without oxygen in the bloodstream, the body’s important organs like the heart and brain begin to shut down. This is what leads to unconsciousness and, potentially, death. An overdose death can happen within minutes and there’s only so much time to react when someone is experiencing an overdose. This is why it’s extremely vital to contact emergency services as soon as you’re aware someone is having a drug overdose.

Fentanyl Statistics

Since 2000, fentanyl has seen a sharp increase in use and overdose deaths, with a particular spike starting in 2013. [11] The following statistics are composed based on fentanyl use and overdose in numerous locations.

  • In Australia, between the years of 2000 and 2011, 136 died due to fentanyl-related deaths – 54% of those people had previously injected drugs and 95% had died due to injected fentanyl.
  • In 2016, there were 42,249 overdose deaths caused by opioids in the U.S. 45.9% off those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. In the same year, 17,087 overdose deaths were due to prescription opioid use. 23.7% were caused by synthetic opioids.
  • In 2016, there were 10,375 cocaine overdose deaths. 40.3% of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids.
  • In 2016, there were 7,542 psychostimulant overdose stimulants. 13.8% of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids.
  • In 2016, there were 10,684 benzodiazepine overdose deaths. 31% of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids.
  • In 2016, there were 4,812 antidepressants overdose deaths. 20.8% of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids.

As we can see, fentanyl overdose deaths don’t solely revolve around heroin use. Though the number of people overdosing due to heroin laced with fentanyl is high, there are numerous other drugs mixed with fentanyl which, in turn, have resulted in overdose deaths. Therefore, the problem of fentanyl is a problem of its own rather than one solely revolving around the opioid epidemic.

Basics to Drug Addiction Treatment

The best way to work towards sobriety is to enter a drug rehabilitation program. Within a treatment program, you can expect to go through two steps which are meant to guarantee you never use drugs again. The first is detox and the second is psychotherapies.

Detox is when your body rids itself of the chemical structure attach to your drug of choice and rework itself back to its normal, organic state – homeostasis. Due to this chemical naturally experiences withdrawal symptoms. Usually, fentanyl withdrawal symptoms start 24 hours after your last dose and symptoms will incline for around 2-3 days and then slowly taper off. Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Headache
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Yawning

Withdrawals can be very uncomfortable and it’s important you do so under medical supervision. This will ensure you receive the best treatment for your condition and medications which can help with easing symptoms and cravings.

It should be noted that some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), particularly in people who’ve been using for a long period of time and take high doses. [12] This is when symptoms persist for weeks or months after the initial detox but aren’t usually as severe.

After detox, you can expect to attend psychotherapy, mainly talk therapy. The purpose of these is to teach you how to handle life stressors and other emotions without the use of drugs. By discussing how you feel with professionals, you’ll better understand your behavior and what has affected you to initially be attracted to drugs. Furthermore, you can learn what to do to reduce cravings.

Where to Find Help

It can be difficult to know where to turn in order to find help.

However, there are a large number of resources available. To begin, you’ll want to contact your doctor or physician as they can provide a referral for addiction treatment centers near you.  As you go about this process, look for detox clinics first . You’ll also want to seek out the most competent and experienced clinical psychologists for the psychotherapy segment of your treatment. Finally, seek out support groups to round out the treatment arsenal.

Here’s where to find medical professionals:

If you’re looking to talk to someone immediately, you can check out the following Helplines:

  • Call our helpline.
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence HopeLine 1-800-475-HOPE (4673)
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse – Drug and Treatment Information 1-800-6224357
  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
  • Substance Abuse Helpline (available 24/7) 1-800-923-4327

Furthermore, you can always call us. We know addiction. We’re happy to help!

Don’t struggle alone.

Reach out before it’s too late.

Your Questions

If you have any further questions pertaining to the skyrocketing deaths caused by fentanyl or drug addiction, we invite you to ask them below. If you have advice to give or further information on these topics, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to reply to everyone in a prompt and personal manner. From there, you can begin looking at different types of treatment programs and come to a decision as to which one is right for you.


Reference Sources: [1] NIDA: Drug Facts: Fentanyl
[2] Medline Plus: Fentanyl
[3] DEA: Street Names for Fentanyl
[4] NIDA for Teens: Opioids and the Brain
[5] NIDA: Definition of Tolerance
[6] NIDA: The Science of Drug Use and Addiction
[7] NIDA: Health Consequences of Drug Misuse
[8] NIDA: Bringing the Power of Science to Bear on Drug Abuse and Addiction
[9] CDC: Drug Overdose
[10] Harm Reduction.org: Overdose Basics, What is an Overdose?
[11] NIDA: Overdose Death Rates
[12] UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior: PAWS
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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