How Fentanyl Became the Deadliest Drug in America
The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC, tracks rates of drug overdose and other substance use behaviors. They recently released a report investigating the drugs most frequently involved in drug overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016. Opioids have long topped the list, with oxycodone ranking first in 2011 and heroin from 2012 through 2015. Now, however, fentanyl has risen to the top of the overdose list. This new result is what makes it the deadliest drug in America.
Equally shocking is the overall rate of overdose deaths. From 2011 to 2016, the age-adjusted rate of deaths due to heroin more than tripled. Meanwhile, the numbers of fentanyl-related overdose deaths doubled every year from 2013 to 2016. The skyrocketing rates of fentanyl deaths and the declining life expectancy in a country as wealthy as the USA do not match other countries with the same financial power.
The report also showed that many people do not just have one drug in their system. For example, 4,600 people who died of overdose had both fentanyl (a central nervous system depressant, or “downer”) and cocaine (a central nervous system stimulant, or “upper”) in their system at once. This suggests that many people continue to use multiple drugs, requiring a comprehensive approach to opioid addiction treatment.
Effects of Fentanyl
Fentanyl binds to opioid receptors throughout the body and crosses the blood-brain barrier to bind to receptors in the brain, too. These receptors control pain and emotions. When fentanyl binds to the receptors, the brain is hit with a flood of the chemical dopamine. This leads to a feeling of euphoria and deep relaxation. This “high” is the reason that people begin taking fentanyl. In many cases, they use fentanyl to numb physical or emotional pain.
Over time, the receptors in the brain become used to the presence of fentanyl or other opioids. It takes more and more of the drug to achieve the same high. This is known as tolerance. Additionally, the body becomes used to the presence of fentanyl and begins to compensate. That means that once fentanyl is taken away, the body reacts with uncomfortable symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms are another sign that the body is dependent on fentanyl.
In addition to opioid dependence, many people develop fentanyl addiction. Addiction occurs when the stimulation of opioid receptors causes the brain to rewire itself. The structure and function of the brain’s reward circuits change, causing the person to crave fentanyl. Fentanyl cravings, continuous attempts to seek the drug or recover from its use, and continuing to use fentanyl despite negative consequences are all signs of fentanyl addiction. Importantly, fentanyl addiction refers to behavioral and psychological symptoms, while fentanyl dependence refers to a physiological need for the drug.
Why Fentanyl Is So Dangerous
Fentanyl is a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it lowers the activity of the central nervous system. That is why it causes breathing and heart rate to slow. The depressant effect of fentanyl is part of what makes it so dangerous. If a person takes too much, their breathing could stop entirely. During an overdose, that is precisely what happens. Breathing slows dramatically or stops, and the heart rate slows down, too.
All opioids are CNS depressants, so what makes fentanyl so particularly deadly? The answer lies in its potency. Potency refers to how strongly a drug binds to receptors and stimulates them. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. That means that a tiny dose of fentanyl can have a vast, possibly deadly effect.
Synthetic drugs are also dangerous because users are unaware of what the ingredients are. Street fentanyl comes from secret laboratories in China and other countries. Labs that have unqualified workers mixing these drugs, with no control of quantity or potency. These unknown substances illegally cross the borders into our streets and our kid’s hands.
The quality and potency of black-market drugs vary widely and so as it fatal effects. Some fentanyl contains contaminants that make it deadly. Other times, fentanyl is mixed in drugs like heroin or Xanax to produce the results faster and more potent. If the drug user is unaware of this, he or she may accidentally take too much of the drug. These new potent mixtures sold in the streets, is what is fueling much of the fentanyl overdose crisis.
Treatment for Fentanyl Addiction
Now that fentanyl has become the deadliest drug in America; it is time to take action. Public health officials have been sounding the alarm that we need a multifaceted approach to control fatal overdose rates. But what are these effective actions? How can we immediately reverse this crisis?
*We need to protect our borders better and stop the influx of fentanyl into the country.
* Provide medications that can reverse an opioid overdose to all emergency personnel regardless of the county’s ability to pay.
* Create a cost to cost campaign, reaching all social outlets to educate the public on drugs, its physiological, emotional and social effects.
* Make our young adult’s leaders of drug education within their communities.
* Provide effective and complete medical detox for those already struggling with dependence.
* Provide individual and accessible mental health care for all those who need.
* Invest our resources and efforts into neuroscience, instead of “more drug replacement” or archaic and failed drug treatment programs.
Medical Opiate Detox
The Waismann Method® has long been a leader in rapid detox and medical opioid detoxification. The goal is to provide opioid users with a safe, supportive, and successful way to come off opioid drugs. After detoxification, patients receive inpatient recovery care to allow time and adequate support throughout this healing phase. For many people with fentanyl addiction, using fentanyl is an attempt to numb the pain associated with depression, trauma, anxiety, or other emotional problems. Aftercare provides an opportunity to learn new coping strategies and address the root causes of addiction. In fact, the combination of detoxification and supportive behavioral treatment in aftercare has better outcomes than either approach alone.
The Future of the Opioid Crisis
Despite these staggering numbers, some studies suggest that 2017 could prove to be much worse. In states such as Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts fentanyl have been responsible for over 50% of the overdose deaths. Experts agree that there is not a single solution, but many immediate actions that need to be taken simultaneously.
Fentanyl may be the deadliest drug in America, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time to take concerted effort to help people that are suffering the horrible effects of drug addiction. With adequate outreach and increased access for medical detoxification followed by professional mental health support and guidance, we can help those struggling with opioid addiction achieve much happier and healthier lives.