What is fentanyl? 10 things to know about the potentially deadly drug

  • Fiza Pirani, Atlanta Journal-Constituiton
2:22 p.m Wednesday, June 28, 2017 Nation & World

The powerful drug fentanyl claimed the life of music legend Prince in 2016 and has, in recent years, largely contributed to the next wave of America’s opioid crisis.

Fentanyl, also known as Actiq, Duragesic or Sublimaze in its prescription form, is an especially potent painkiller developed in the 1960s used to treat extreme pain.

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strains of fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than morphine.

Some street names for the drug (or for non-pharmaceutical fentanyl-laced heroin) include Apache, China Girl, China White, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfella, Jackpot, Murder 8, TNT and Tango and Cash, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

According to a recent U.S. government report, fentanyl in recent years has been traced back to illegal labs in China and Mexico, trafficked to countries (like the U.S.), laced with heroin and sold to buyers who have no knowledge of the drug’s presence.

Physicians prescribe fentanyl as a pain reliever or anesthesia, typically for opioid-tolerant patients undergoing heart surgery (as anesthesia), cancer patients already receiving maintenance opioid medication for pain or patients with chronic pain who need around-the-clock opioids.

The controlled substance can be legally prescribed via injection, patch, lozenges or lollipop.

Fentanyl (and other opioids) binds to receptors in parts of the brain that control pain and emotions, increasing dopamine levels and creating a state of euphoria.

Like any opiate, fentanyl use can increase the risk of dependency and lead to both abuse and addiction.

When the drug isn’t properly ingested as prescribed or is consumed illicitly or accidentally, just one small dose can result in death.

Because fentanyl is so highly potent, drug dealers have increasingly been mixing heroin, oxycodone or Xanax with fentanyl, deceiving buyers who are unaware that a powder or pill contains the drug.

But this deception, according to Harvard Medical School, is proving fatal.

One strain of fentanyl (furanyl fentanyl) is so potent that you could die from just touching it, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The furanyl fentanyl, labeled and sold as oxycodone pills and powder, caused 19 deaths in Georgia from 2016 to 2017.

Some of the opioid receptors in the brain that fentanyl binds to also help control breathing, but high doses of opioids such as fentanyl (usually consumed accidentally or illicitly) can stop someone from breathing altogether, killing them.

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