What you need to know about this dangerous drug
If you’ve been keeping up with opioid-related news, then no doubt you’ve heard about fentanyl.
This potent painkiller is linked to tens of thousands of deaths every year, including the recent high-profile deaths of both Prince and Tom Petty, And while it has the high potential to be abused, you can still get it with a prescription.
Fentanyl is a narcotic and synthetic opioid that’s used to treat severe pain. It’s similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent, Fentanyl is prescribed under the brand names Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze but can also show up on the street under names like Apache and China Girl.
Fentanyl is classified by the FDA as a Schedule II drug, which means it has a high potential for abuse and can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. (Methadone and oxycodone are also Schedule II drugs.)
In 2015, the DEA issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl, warning that overdoses related to the drug are happening at an “alarming rate” around the country.
But again, people can obtain a prescription for it. Fentanyl is usually available in several different forms by prescription: a duragesic patch, a lollipop, a dissolvable pill you put under your tongue, and a nasal spray,’ remarks Andrew Kolodny, MD, director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
Petty’s family said in a statement on his website that the rocker was using prescription fentanyl patches to treat pain from a fractured hip when he died. According to the Mayo Clinic, these patches are often used for “severe chronic pain when around-the-clock pain relief is needed for a long period of time.” With the patch, fentanyl is administered more slowly to someone than a pill or nasal spray to minimize the overdose risk — but it doesn’t totally eliminate it, says James J. Galligan, PhD, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the neuroscience program at Michigan State University.
Fentanyl isn’t typically a first line of defense for pain — it’s usually used to treat pain only after the patient used other opiate drugs like oxycodone and no longer has pain relief from it after building up a tolerance, Galligan says. “Fentanyl is one of the most potent narcotic medications available,” Chris Wolf, DO, a sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at Bluetail Medical Group in Chesterfield, Mo., comments. “It’s typically utilized for patients who have some form of pain that we can’t treat any other way.”
Unfortunately, some doctors have become liberal with their fentanyl prescriptions. Fentanyl was originally designed to be used in the operating room by anesthesiologists, taken for a few days after major surgery or a serious accident, or for end of life pain relief, However, some doctors are prescribing it for anyone with long-term pain, which is dangerous.
It’s important to know that if you’re taking fentanyl and you need to or are ready to come off of it, you’ll need to taper off, states Will Chan, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “If you don’t, you’ll start having withdrawal symptoms,” he says. “Your doctor should have a plan for helping you to taper off of it, but if not, ask. Just don’t abruptly take yourself off of the medication or you could get so sick you’ll end up in the ER,” Kolodny says.
If used according to the doctor’s prescription and guidance, the dangers of using fentanyl are lower. However, because fentanyl is so potent, the patient must strictly follow the doctor’s orders and instructions.
I’ve taken fentanyl before when it was prescribed to me for my chronic migraines several years ago. I accidentally took too much, and felt very high from it. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather go with another med or method to ease my pain. I would be afraid to take fentanyl again, even in small doses. It’s just too damn strong, much too dangerous.