Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can alleviate pain. In hospitals, fentanyl is most commonly used to ease the suffering of adult cancer patients who are experiencing what medical professionals describe as breakthrough pain.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that fentanyl has a similar chemical structure to morphine but is 50-100 times more potent than morphine .
Unfortunately, because the effects of fentanyl can include serenity, sedation, and euphoria, it is often abused for recreational purposes. The misuse or abuse of fentanyl for any reason can expose a person to considerable harm, including overdose and death.
As the rate of fentanyl overdoses and overdose-related deaths continues to rise across the nation, the search for solutions becomes more urgent. As many experts have noted, the effort to prevent fentanyl deaths involves both individual actions and societal changes.
The Scope of the Fentanyl Problem
The increased popularity of recreational fentanyl abuse and the drug’s considerable potency has made it a key contributor to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes as “the third wave”  of opioid overdose deaths in the United States.
The CDC has reported the following statistics about fentanyl abuse, overdose, and deaths:
- From 1999-2013, the annual number of overdose deaths in the United States that involved fentanyl or other synthetic opioids remained near or below one death per 100,000 people .
- From 2013-2019 (the most recent year for which the CDC has data), the annual number of fentanyl overdose deaths increased by more than 1100% .
- In 2019, the CDC recorded more than 36,000 deaths that involved synthetic opioids other than methadone (a category the CDC notes that consists primarily of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, which are substances that are structurally similar to fentanyl) .
It is important to note that the category of fentanyl overdose deaths may include people who did not knowingly or intentionally ingest this dangerous substance.
The Partnership to End Addiction has reported that some illicit drug manufacturers add fentanyl to cocaine, heroin, and certain prescription medications . The people who acquire these substances may have no idea that the drug they are taking includes a substance as powerful and dangerous as fentanyl.
Helping a Friend or Family Member Fighting Fentanyl
On a personal level, the best things you can do to prevent someone you care about from experiencing fentanyl overdose are to convince them not to use this drug and, if they have developed opioid use disorder, help them get the treatment they need.
When people develop opioid use disorder, which is the clinical term for addiction to fentanyl or other opioids, they lose the ability to control the amount and frequency of their fentanyl use. People who have become addicted to fentanyl may exhibit a wide range of concerning symptoms, including:
- Using fentanyl when it is clearly dangerous to do so, such as in combination with other substances or when driving
- Prioritizing fentanyl use over personal and professional responsibilities
- Lying or being otherwise deceptive about their whereabouts, activities, and associates
- Needing to use fentanyl more often or in greater amounts to experience the desired effects
- Experiencing intense cravings and other forms of physical and psychological distress when they try to end their fentanyl use or when they are unable to acquire and use fentanyl
If you suspect that someone you know is using fentanyl for recreational or other illicit purposes, share your concerns and talk to them about getting help. You don’t have to do this alone. Consult with a healthcare provider, contact a local mental health or addiction support organization, and get a small group of close friends and trusted family members to help you.
Anyone who has been misusing or abusing fentanyl may be in grave danger and needs professional help. Don’t wait until it’s too late. The persistent mistaken belief that a person has to “hit rock bottom” before they can get help and achieve recovery from addiction is nothing more than a myth.
National and Statewide Efforts
The impact of substance use and addiction is rarely limited to the person who engages in the behavior or develops the disorder. Families, communities, and entire nations can be affected. They can also play a role in combating the problem.
In recent years, many organizations and governmental agencies have worked to promote awareness of the opioid epidemic that has had such a devastating impact throughout the nation. Acknowledging the existence of this problem is an important step toward ending it. But awareness alone cannot stem the rising tide of fentanyl overdose deaths.
Additional efforts at the state and national levels include:
- Attorneys general in several states have been taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies that are alleged to have misrepresented the dangers of the opioids they manufactured and sold. In June 2021, Johnson & Johnson settled a case in New York, agreeing to pay $230 million and cease the company’s involvement in opioid manufacturing and sales .
- In April 2021, Sen. Rob Portman (D-OH) introduced the Federal Initiative to Guarantee Health by Targeting Fentanyl Act, which would permanently extend the ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency to prosecute people who make or sell fentanyl analogues .
- Many states are changing laws and implementing other legislative measures in an attempt to reduce the number of overdose deaths that are related to fentanyl and other prescription medications .
On June 1, 2021, the American Medical Association Advocacy Resource Center released a brief  that expressed support for steps such as:
- Increasing flexibility and removing administrative barriers to provide greater access to methadone, buprenorphine, and other medications for people who are struggling with opioid addiction
- Increasing flexibility and removing administrative barriers to ensure that patients can get appropriate pain medications
- Putting new laws in place to guarantee that funds generated by opioid-related lawsuits are used for public health initiatives, including opioid use treatment and prevention
Fentanyl addiction is a treatable condition, and fentanyl overdose deaths can be prevented. A concerted and coordinated effort among individuals, medical organizations, governmental agencies, and other relevant groups may be the key to success in this vital endeavor.
1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, June 10). Fentanyl DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 17). Understanding the Epidemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 17). Understanding the Epidemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 25). Synthetic Opioid Overdose Data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/synthetic/index.html.
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 25). Synthetic Opioid Overdose Data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/synthetic/index.html.
6. Partnership to End Addiction. (2020, May 25). What to Know about Drugs Laced with Fentanyl & Other Substances. https://drugfree.org/article/what-to-know-about-drugs-laced-with-fentanyl-other-substances/.
7. Press, T. A. (2021, June 26). J&J Agrees To Pay $230M In New York Opioid Settlement. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/26/1010567087/j-j-johnson-and-johnson-230-million-new-york-opioid-settlement.
8. Office of Senator Rob Portman. (2021, April 21). On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Immediate Action to Pass FIGHT Fentanyl Act, Keep Deadly Fentanyl-Related Drugs Illegal. [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.portman.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/senate-floor-portman-urges-immediate-action-pass-fight-fentanyl-act-keep.
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, June 15). CDC – Prescription Drugs – Publications and Resources – Public Health Law. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/phlp/publications/topic/prescription.html.
10. American Medical Association Advocacy Resource Center. (2021, June 1). Issue brief: Drug overdose epidemic worsened during COVID pandemic. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/2020-12/issue-brief-increases-in-opioid-related-overdose.pdf.
About Our Sponsor:
At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and girls who are living with mental health conditions such as substance use disorders and eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on July 12, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 12, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com