For over 50 years, fentanyl has been an effective medication used by doctors to treat patients. It helps in cases of severe pain, and patients benefit from using it. But somewhere along the way, fentanyl started being used and acquired illegally. Once that started happening, it got dangerous. Now, fentanyl kills over 80,000 people every year. According to the Tennessee Department of Health and Human Services, Tennessee lost 2,014 people due to fentanyl-related overdoses in 2021.
At ReVIDA® Recovery, we know that not everyone who experiences a fentanyl overdose is even aware that they’re taking fentanyl. Let’s talk about why this is happening.
What are Fentanyl-Laced Pills?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, just like Vicodin® or OxyContin. People who take fentanyl feel all of the same things they feel with other opioids like pain relief, relaxation, sleepiness, euphoria, and more. Like other opioids in its class, it is used to treat severe pain, usually after an injury or as part of a post-surgery protocol. There is one major difference between fentanyl and other opioids, though: it’s much stronger.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Dealers love this because it means they can substitute a tiny amount of fentanyl for a larger amount of Vicodin, heroin, morphine, or even methamphetamines – unbeknownst to their consumers. This is a way for them to cut corners and save money, and it’s happening a lot. It’s also a way for dealers to get their customers hooked on it faster. Because of how powerful and potent fentanyl is, people can form a dependence on it faster than they would on Vicodin or other synthetic opioids.
Fentanyl-laced pills are illegally manufactured by dealers. Dealers will sell them under the names of “Vicodin®” or “OxyCONTIN” or “hydrocodone”, but they’ll lace the pills with fentanyl to create a “stronger high” for less money. This is problematic for a number of reasons, including:
- Consumers don’t know what they’re getting. Fentanyl is odorless and water-soluble, which means it’s undetectable to the naked eye. If an individual is living with an addiction to something like hydrocodone, they have a set amount they take in order to feel comfortable or achieve a “high.” If they take the amount they’re used to, but it’s deceptively laced with fentanyl, they could overdose.
- Some people who take opioids recreationally/illegally may also take them alongside alcohol or other drugs, which can be fatal when mixed with fentanyl. In 2019, half of all drug overdose deaths involved multiple drugs or alcohol. That means that someone might already be intoxicated when they take a fentanyl-laced pill, increasing the risk of overdose tenfold. It is incredibly dangerous to mix fentanyl with other substances because of how strong it can be.
- Dealers don’t always accurately measure how much fentanyl they’re using. Fentanyl should only be measured by medical professionals. This is another reason why fentanyl overdoses are so common – the doses aren’t being measured correctly. Most of the dealers who are lacing pills with fentanyl have no idea how to properly dose it. That means that consumers are at risk of ingesting too much.
- A TINY amount of fentanyl can be deadly. Fentanyl the size of a grain or two of salt can cause an overdose.
How Can You Tell if a Pill Has Been Laced with Fentanyl?
It’s borderline impossible for anyone to tell whether or not a pill has been laced with fentanyl just by looking at it. It has no smell, no distinguishing “feel” or texture, and no taste. When fentanyl is hiding in pill form, it could look like anything. The only way to tell if a pill has been laced with fentanyl (at home) is to test it using fentanyl test strips.
To use the test strips, a person would need to dissolve a portion of the pill in water. They’d then dip the test strip into the mixture and wait for the result. This only takes a few minutes and it can save a life.
As of 2022, fentanyl test strips are legal and distributed throughout Tennessee. If you’re living with opioid use disorder, it’s a good idea to keep these on hand and use them every time you acquire opioids, benzodiazepines, or any other drugs from street dealers (or online).
What Pills Are Usually Laced with Fentanyl?
Fentanyl can be mixed into any kind of pill, but here are some of the most common ones to look out for:
- Benzodiazepines like alprazolam, diazepam, and clonazepam
- Oxycodone or hydrocodone
- Amphetamine pills
- MDMA or ecstasy
Rainbow fentanyl is another one to look out for. This is a fairly new delivery method and it gained notoriety in 2022. It comes in the form of brightly colored pills, powder, or blocks. These fentanyl pills look a lot like candy, and just one of them can cause an overdose.
Statistics of Deaths Caused by Fentanyl-Laced Pills
Unfortunately, deaths caused by fentanyl-laced pills are all-too-common, and the number of deaths is climbing every year. Fentanyl caused 53,480 preventable deaths in 2020. In 2019, 33,725 people lost their lives to fentanyl. This is a 59% increase in fentanyl deaths in the timespan of one year.
Other opioids, such as morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, caused 11,893 preventable deaths in 2020, which was a 19% increase from the previous year. In other words, the opioid crisis isn’t slowing down, and fentanyl is the largest culprit.
Overdosing from Fentanyl
Fentanyl overdose is dangerous and it often leads to long-term health issues or fatalities. If you suspect that you or someone you’re with is overdosing on fentanyl, it’s important that you call for help immediately. When you speak to the dispatcher or the EMT, make sure you give them as much information as possible, including the age of the person affected, the type of drug ingested, the dosage ingested, and the person’s symptoms. The more information you can give, the more helpful it will be when it comes time to life-saving procedures.
NOTE: Under Tennessee’s “Good Samaritan Law”, any person who in good faith seeks medical assistance for a person experiencing or believed to be experiencing a drug overdose shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted.
Some common signs of overdose include:
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
- Tiny, pinpoint pupils
- Gurgling sounds
- Limp limbs or body
- Cold/clammy skin
- Discoloration in lips, fingernails, or under the eyes
Side Effects of Fentanyl Use
The dangers of fentanyl use include both long-term and short-term side effects. Any opioid, synthetic or otherwise, works by binding to our body’s opioid receptors. Those receptors are found in the brain, the gut, the spinal cord, and more. That means that by ingesting this medication, you’re stimulating those opioid receptors and making your body vulnerable to side effects or other complications. The longer you’re taking fentanyl, the higher your probability of side effects.
Side effects will also be magnified if you’re taking fentanyl alongside alcohol or other drugs. Opioids are nervous system depressants; they slow down your respiratory and digestive tracts. When they’re mixed with other depressants, like alcohol, complications may arise with breathing or with the heart.
Some short-term side effects of fentanyl use include:
- Slurred speech
- Slowed breathing
- Impairment in decision-making
- Urinary retention
- Gastrointestinal distress (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation)
Long-term use of fentanyl also comes with a host of possible issues. Using any opioids long-term can disrupt the chemical balance in your body and rewire the neural pathways in your brain. Some of the more common long-term side effects of fentanyl use include:
- Mood disorders like anxiety, depression, or bipolar
- Sleep apnea
- Bowel obstructions
- Chronic constipation
- Reproductive issues
- Hormonal imbalance
- Heart attack, stroke, or heart failure
The sooner someone stops using fentanyl, the smaller their chances are of developing long-term side effects. Many of fentanyl’s short-term side effects can be eliminated with discontinuation of use.
ReVIDA® Recovery Treatment Options for Fentanyl Used Disorder
It’s not easy to stop taking fentanyl, or any opioids for that matter. At ReVIDA Recovery®, our mission is to help you reclaim your life from opioid use disorder. Discontinuation of fentanyl doesn’t have to feel impossible. We support the use of buprenorphine (Suboxone®) for fentanyl addiction treatment because it’s backed by solid evidence and we’ve seen it work. If you’re interested in our buprenorphine (Suboxone®) program, call us today at 423-631-0432 so we can help!
Frequently Asked Questions
What are rainbow fentanyl pills?
Rainbow fentanyl comes in the form of brightly colored pills, powder, or blocks.
What are the physical characteristics of Fentanyl?
Fentanyl often comes in a white powder or a pill form. Counterfeit fentanyl pills will be blue, green, or red. Fentanyl can be cut with other drugs like opiates, benzodiazepines, and even methamphetamines.
What are the dangers of taking a fentanyl-laced pill?
Most of the dealers who are lacing pills with fentanyl have no idea how to properly dose it. That means that consumers are at risk of ingesting too much and experiencing an overdose. Fentanyl should only be measured by medical professionals because it is 50-100x more potent than other opioids in its class. This is one reason fentanyl overdoses are so common.