Fentanyl Overdose Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

Fentanyl: the buzzword of the opioid epidemic sweeping the United States. This potent painkiller-turned-killer has risen out of relative obscurity to becoming planted firmly in the spotlight — making the rounds and dominating headlines from coast to coast. It kills indiscriminately, with everyone from individuals from lower socioeconomic status to the pop star Prince succumbing to its lethality. So, what exactly is this new, enigmatic drug, and why is it such a hot-button topic?

Before getting to those answers, it’s helpful to have a firm understanding of the situation the country finds itself in. It is reported that more than 64,000 fatalities were the result of drug overdoses 2016. Of these, some 50,000 were due to opioids such as heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and others. As staggering as that already is, try to imagine this: over 20,000 of those deaths were because of fentanyl alone. Drug overdose deaths were up 22 percent between 2015 and 2016. Fentanyl deaths doubled in the same time period. This drug is the vanguard of a seemingly unstoppable force.

Despite the recent surge in media coverage, the drug has existed since 1960. In it’s intended form, fentanyl is an opioid medication used to treat chronic pain. Researchers place it as being 100 times more powerful than morphine. Even the king of monstrous narcotics, heroin, pales in comparison. Fentanyl is anywhere from 30–50 times more potent than heroin.

Recreational use of illicit fentanyl is on the rise. Year after year this addictive drug is gaining more users, ruining more lives, and leading to more fatal overdoses.

Fentanyl Overdose | Fentanyl Overdose Treatment, Signs, & Symptoms
Most opioids are measured in milligrams. For example, the fatal dose of morphine is 200 mg. The possibility of a fatal fentanyl overdose is so likely that the traditional measurement had to be updated. Researchers usually refer to fentanyl in micrograms — 1,000 times smaller than a milligram. Thus, the lethal dose of fentanyl comes out to 3,000 micrograms or just 3 mg. To paint a picture in your mind, 3 mg is equivalent to a few grains of sand, a pinch of salt at most. Even police officers and first responders put themselves in harm’s way when responding to the scene of a suspected fentanyl overdose. There is no guarantee that they won’t come into contact with the drug accidentally. Departments across the country are instituting new guidelines to deal with these hazardous new scenarios. If this weren’t alarming enough, fentanyl has given rise to an even worse variant in recent years. Enter carfentanil: an elephant tranquilizer opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. An amount smaller than a single grain of sand is all it takes to kill a full-grown adult. It is no wonder why fentanyl and its offshoots are the deadliest opioids currently in existence.
Fentanyl overdoses showcase a set of symptoms similar to all opioids. Though these are more pronounced and frequent with recreational misuse, such symptoms are possible with medical-grade fentanyl use as well. Overdose symptoms include:
  • Dizziness: it will be difficult to remain steady and upright during such an overpowering overdose.
  • Confusion: victims may be unaware of their surroundings, perhaps even unaware that they consumed fentanyl in the first place.
  • Body weakness: fatigue is common. Extremities may exhibit limpness, too.
  • Sleepiness: lack of proper oxygenation can lead to feelings of drowsiness.
  • Hypoventilation: slow breathing as opposed to rapid, erratic breaths. Opioids such as fentanyl act upon the centers of the brain that control respiration.
The signs of a fentanyl overdose mirror that of its symptoms. Keep a keen eye on a suspected victim. Seek out medical intervention when the below signs begin to surface:
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Lethargy
  • Slow heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blue colored lips and fingernails
  • Clumsiness
  • Unconsciousness or coma
Any apparent loss of consciousness should be acted upon immediately. Apart from that clear and present danger, each of the other signs should be red flags to any observer as well.
For a user, a fentanyl dose is instantly euphoric. This guise quickly fades, from the inside, out. To someone witnessing a fentanyl overdose, the most striking sign that something is amiss is the bluish color a victim’s lips. From here, their body will likely seize up and remain rigid similar to rigor mortis. When help arrives, EMTs and law enforcement will administer naloxone, an anti-overdose drug designed specifically for opioids. Naloxone blocks the receptors opioids bind to in the central nervous system. It functions as a suppressive measure rather than an antidote. However, fentanyl is unquenchable in its destruction — one dose of naloxone is almost never enough. In upward of 83 percent of such overdoses cases, it requires multiple injections of naloxone before it begins to take any effect. Once stabilized, physicians can continue treatment at the hospital and address any life-threatening breathing or cardiac issues.
Everyone has an image of an overdose in their mind. These images are mostly informed by representations we’ve been conditioned to believe from television, books, and films. The stereotypical persona of an individual with a substance use disorder is not a pretty one. The truth is, fentanyl looks quite different. A fentanyl overdose can look like the people all around you. It looks like husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children. Like friends, neighbors, teachers, and loved ones. Opioids, and fentanyl in particular, are erasing the label of a user forever as it rages through neighborhoods and destroys communities. Don’t let a fentanyl addiction claim your future or that of someone you love. If you need guidance on how to get help for a drug or alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village is just a phone call away. Caring representatives are always available to listen to you, answer your questions, and point you in the direction of a program that can help. 
Fentanyl Overdose Signs, Symptoms & Treatment
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