Opioids like heroin get most of the attention when it comes to addiction and deadly overdoses, but fentanyl is more potent and dangerous than most opioids. Fentanyl played a role in the death of musician Prince, and the illicit use of this incredibly strong opioid is becoming more of a problem in the United States.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it’s manmade and is estimated to be anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine according to the DEA. Other groups estimate that the potency even higher. It’s also thought to be up to 50 times more potent than heroin. Because fentanyl use is on the rise, deaths related to the drug are also increasing.

There are statistics showing that in many states, fentanyl is involved in as much as 75 percent of overdose deaths, which shows the staggering impact of this deadly drug.

Why is fentanyl so dangerous? What is it about fentanyl that makes it more dangerous than other, already-deadly opioids? To understand the answers to those questions, it’s key to know how fentanyl impacts a person’s physical and mental health.

Fentanyl’s Effect on the Brain

Fentanyl binds to opioid receptors and crosses the blood-brain barrier. This function is how fentanyl is able to create a sense of euphoria and deep relaxation for the user.

While fentanyl may act in the same general way as other opioids, the speed at which it takes effect is one of the ways it’s distinctive.

Fentanyl binds quickly to opioid receptors and that’s what makes the effects feel more euphoric. The rapidity is also one of the reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous and so addictive.

Because of the potency of fentanyl, it takes a much smaller amount of the drug to have the same effect that would be seen with other opioids. Because of this potency, fentanyl is measured in micrograms instead of milligrams.

The difference in potency is another one of the significant reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous. When fentanyl is taken illicitly, there’s really no way for people to know how much they’re getting.

Some individuals may not be expecting to take fentanyl at all, as it can be cut into other drugs. So, because even the smallest amount can lead to overdose, fentanyl is deadly because it can kill without much warning.

The Physical Reasons Why Fentanyl Is So Dangerous

There are also physical reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous, along with the fact that a relatively small amount is so potent.

One of the primary physical reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous is the respiratory depression it creates. This danger is the case with all opioids, although again, it can happen with a much smaller dose than other opioids.

If someone takes something over the therapeutic dose of any opioid, including fentanyl, their breathing can slow to the point that they die. With fentanyl, respiratory effects happen faster.

Wooden chest syndrome, or chest wall rigidity, is another reason that fentanyl is deadly. As part of the slowing of respiration, when someone injects fentanyl intravenously, they’re at risk for wooden chest syndrome. When this syndrome occurs, the chest and abdomen muscles tighten and become so rigid that even doing CPR is difficult if not impossible.

These reasons why fentanyl is so dangerous also go along with the fact that it’s considered a high-risk drug for addiction and dependence. Because of how it crosses the blood-brain barrier so quickly, tolerance can develop very quickly as well, which makes the person using the drug feel as if they need larger doses to get the same euphoric high. This pattern puts them at a higher risk for overdose.

If you or a loved one live with addiction, contact The Recovery Village to speak to a representative to discuss treatment options. Treatment plans are individualized to meet each patient’s specific needs and can also address any co-occurring disorders. Call today and take the first step toward a healthier future.

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By – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Christina Caplinger, RPh
Christina Caplinger is a licensed pharmacist in both Colorado and Idaho and is also a board-certified pharmacotherapy specialist. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.