What you need to know about fentanyl and why it’s dangerous

The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine

ORLANDO, Fla. – According to the latest CDC numbers, there is roughly one death every 5 minutes in the United States from a drug overdose – a new record.

Drug overdoses over the last few years have broken records around the country and in Central Florida too.

A large chunk of those overdoses involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. In Central Florida, 86% of overdose deaths were due to fentanyl in 2021, according to Project Opioid.

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What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Fentanyl has a chemical structure that can be manipulated to change the potency of the drug.

The drug binds receptors in the brain that control pain and emotions. It can cause extreme happiness, drowsiness, confusion, sedation, problems breathing and unconsciousness.

It works quickly and the effects have a short duration.

Because of the potency, fentanyl can be addictive and even those who follow doctor guidelines can develop a dependency. When the brain adapts to the drug, it becomes harder to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.

Fentanyl is a schedule II substance under the Controlled Substances Act, which means it’s allowed for medicinal purposes with severe restrictions because it has a high potential for abuse and addiction. It’s the same category as drugs like Vicodine, OxyContin and Adderall.

How is fentanyl used legally?

Fentanyl is used legally to treat patients with severe pain, particularly post-surgery. Its use started in the 1960s under the name Sublimaze. These days it operates under prescription names like Actiq, Fentora, Abstral or Duragesic, for lozenges, tablets or even nasal sprays.

Patients with chronic pain can get transdermal patches to manage pain, but they usually have to have a high tolerance to other opioids.

What is illegal fentanyl?

Illicit fentanyl is made in labs and sold illegally in pill form to look like prescription opioids. It can also be sold as a powder, in eye droppers or nasal sprays, or dropped on blotter paper.

According to an article from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the fentanyl we are seeing these days is made in China, Mexico and India, then exported to the United States. These opioids can then be shipped using legal delivery services, including the U.S. Postal Service.

More drug dealers are mixing or cutting other drugs with fentanyl, like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. This is a cheaper option for dealers. They can promise a good high and cut pure products with the cheaper synthetics, meaning higher profits.

The problem is that people may not realize the drugs are mixed with fentanyl, and since their bodies are not used to the strong opioids they are more likely to overdose.

The other problem is that when the overdose happens, since the primary drug is cut with fentanyl it’s not only clear which drug is causing the overdose.

In the case of a fentanyl overdose, the drug slows down breathing, reducing oxygen levels to the brain, known as hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to a coma, permanent brain damage or death.

How is a fentanyl overdose treated?

The drug naloxone (also known as Narcan), can treat an overdose if given right away by blocking the effects of the opioids. Because fentanyl is so potent, sometimes you may have to use more than one dose of naloxone to treat the overdose.

Naloxone is available in needle form and in nasal sprays.

In Florida, naloxone is available at pharmacies without a prescription. Florida Medicaid will cover the drug, as will other insurance companies.

You may also be able to get naloxone for free through certain providers. To find that, go to the I Save FL website, which is hosted by the Florida Department of Children and Families.

What is being done in Central Florida about the crisis?

The CEO of Project Opioid, Andrae Bailey, said they are working with law enforcement to combat the opioid crisis.

Bailey told News 6 they’ve launched an educational campaign called ‘The Everyone Campaign’.

The project launched in January of 2022, with billboards all across Central Florida.

Their goal is to cut down on opioid abuse, and the campaign focuses on the dangers of fentanyl.

Sheriff Dennis Lemma of Seminole County partnered with Project Opioid on the initiative, which is also distributing naloxone.

In an interview with News 6′s Justin Warmoth, Lemma called fentanyl the equivalent of Russian roulette.

“People are taking this, they’re ingesting it in their body, sometimes for the first time ever, and they’re dying nearly immediately,” Lemma said.

The sheriff said now, ahead of graduation and end of the year celebrations, is the time for parents to have conversations with their kids about fentanyl.

About the Authors:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.