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Fentanyl: Heroin's deadly cohort

Heroin is still considered among the most dangerous and deadly drugs out there. In fact, in recent years, overdose deaths have made a sharp increase as fentanyl-laced heroin floods the scene. A recent CDC analysis showed that the overdose death rate from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) more than doubled in the past couple of years, with the increase thought to be linked to illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF), which often gets laced into other drugs, including heroin, when it’s sold on the street.

Heroin, which is becoming a bigger and bigger problem across all sectors of society (more on that below), is risky enough on its own but when fentanyl is added to the mix, the potential for addiction and deadly overdose increases exponentially.

What is fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that was originally introduced as an alternative painkiller to morphine. When it was developed in the late 1950s, it was used to ease pain for terminally ill patients. It’s still used medically in some cases to treat severe pain after surgery, for those who have a tolerance for opioids, or for managing pain in end-of-life care. Because it’s still considered to have acceptable medicinal uses, it’s classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. That does not, however, mean that it’s safe. Very far from it.

How fentanyl makes its way to the street comes down to economics for dealers - with extremely costly consequences for uniformed users.

The link between heroin and fentanyl

Heroin and fentanyl are both opioids, which affect the areas of the brain that control emotion and pain. Both will give users a spike in the reward centers as they trigger a rise in dopamine levels. The resulting euphoria and relaxation are what the addict begins chasing. Like most drugs, tolerance builds, and more is needed to get the high they’re looking for but this also increases the risks of respiratory sedation, cardiovascular dysfunction, coma and even death.

Numerous studies have shown that heroin use and addiction most frequently begins with medically prescribed opioid painkillers. Prescription medications can be highly addictive -- perhaps even more dangerous because the fact that they’re used under medical supervision gives them the illusion of being “safe” and acceptable. The slippery slope begins when the drugs used to numb physical pain also pacify emotional pain, anxiety, and other psychological issues. The user may not even realize that’s what’s really going on and even as physical symptoms may heal and subside, the cravings for the feelings of well-being and relaxation continue. The user keeps taking the drug thinking it’s relatively harmless and before they know it, it becomes something they have a hard time functioning without.

Heroin becomes an “easier” next step: access doesn’t require seeing a doctor and it’s less expensive than filling prescriptions. Illegal drug use, including heroin, is showing up in increasing numbers in suburbs and among young adults in more affluent neighborhoods. It’s no longer considered an urban problem, it’s a significant problem in every part of our country.

Fentanyl comes into play as illegal drug manufacturers and dealers look to increase their own profit margins: it costs a fraction of what heroin does to make yet it produces a similar high and looks identical. The user will never know the difference.

Why fentanyl is so deadly

According to NIDA, fentanyl is 50 to 100 more potent than morphine and while it offers a similar high to heroin, it does so in far smaller doses. Ingesting as little as two or three grains can have deadly consequences. When fentanyl is laced into heroin so dealers can reduce their costs, there is no telling how much of the drug in any given batch is heroin and how much is fentanyl… and the user most likely has no idea they’re not taking pure heroin. What they think is their typical dose can be far more potent than they were going for.

This is the main reason we’re seeing such a shocking increase in overdose deaths. Taking heroin tainted with fentanyl can lead to coma or death within minutes. The signs of overdose may appear but there is little time to react before the body begins to shut down.

It may not always be deadly, but if someone has unknowingly been taking laced heroin, their dependency on the drug may be stronger than they realize and their tolerance may be building even further. Recovery from heroin addiction is not a quick and easy endeavor. It’s important to seek intervention as soon as possible.

Getting help

If you have a loved one dealing with heroin addiction, it’s imperative to seek professional help. Once you’ve recognized the signs and symptoms and decided it’s time to confront the issue, you’ll want to prepare yourself and your loved one for the journey to recovery. You cannot expect a heroin or opioid user to stop cold-turkey. In fact, this can also be extremely dangerous or even deadly.

Opioids, particularly if used long-term, change the brain’s chemistry and functions. Resetting the body and restoring it is a long, multi-tiered process. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and may require medical interventions along the way. It’s crucial that an addict in recovery be monitored for the best possible outcome.

Beyond the physical withdrawals and management of symptoms, addicts in recovery need support and to be given tools to help them understand the root of their addiction. In the absence of a safe environment where they feel understood, forgiven, and supported on the path, they’re far less likely to find long-term healing and personal growth.

Effective treatment also includes educating and supporting family members and loved ones who will be pivotal in helping the addict remain sober post-treatment. Our programs provide a solution that involves helping young adults develop the skills they’ll need to navigate life’s challenges in the future without falling back into patterns of dependency on drugs and alcohol.

We want to see every young person succeed life, regardless of their past. If you need help getting your loved one on the road to recovery, please call us today at 888-506-9818.

Sources:

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use

https://www.cnn.com/2016/09/23/health/heroin-opioid-drug-overdose-deaths-visual-guide/index.html

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/fentanyl