Understanding the Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic

Updated on 07/03/23

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu

Recent data from the Center for Disease Control shows that, in 2021, nearly 107,622 individuals lost their lives from a drug overdose. Compared to 2019, the number of lives lost annually from overdose has increased by almost 45%. This data also shows that overdose deaths occur most commonly from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. Fentanyl is a silent killer, contaminating illicit drugs across the United States. It is more important than ever to shed light on the dangers of fentanyl and recognize that there is much that the United States can do to further cut down on the number of lives lost to overdoses.

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioids, in general, are a class of drugs that includes prescription pain medicines as well as illegal drugs, such as heroin. Many opioids, such as morphine, are initially administered and prescribed to treat both short-term and long-term pain. When these pain relievers are taken as prescribed and for a short period of time, they are generally considered safe. However, because opioids can produce euphoric effects in addition to pain relief, they are becoming increasingly misused and abused.

The terms “misuse” and “abuse” are often used interchangeably, although these terms mean different things. The misuse of a drug occurs when a substance is taken differently than what is prescribed, such as taking the drug in larger doses or more frequently than instructed. Misuse can also mean taking a substance without a doctor’s prescription, such as taking someone else’s prescription. On the other hand, substance abuse is taking a substance with the intent to get high. For many people, it is only a matter of time before substance misuse becomes substance abuse, and substance abuse can quickly lead to the development of addiction.

Understanding Fentanyl Addiction

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, yet the term “powerful” isn’t enough to describe the intense power of this drug. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, which is another opioid that is used to treat moderate to severe pain. In medical settings, fentanyl is a drug approved for treating severe pain, particularly pain associated with advanced types of cancer.

Fentanyl’s Role in the Overdose Epidemic

Although fentanyl is legally made for medicinal use, it is also made and used illegally. Illicit fentanyl is synthetically made in labs and is often sold as powders, droppers and pills. While some people may use synthetic fentanyl as their drug of choice and purchase it off the streets, most individuals who overdose from fentanyl do so unknowingly. This is because drug dealers use fentanyl as a cheap “filler” substance to increase the potency of whatever drug is being advertised and sold. Fentanyl is also often disguised as highly potent heroin.

Many individuals purchase these drugs with the belief that they are purchasing pure heroin, cocaine or MDMA. However, it is vital to understand that most street drugs are illicitly manufactured and unregulated. This means that drug dealers can do just about whatever they want to the drug that they are selling. It is also important to understand that a lethal dose of fentanyl is equivalent to four grains of sand. Because fentanyl is a cheap and potent mixer and also undetectable by sight, smell or taste, it is, unfortunately, becoming a huge contributor to overdose deaths.

How to Prevent Overdose Deaths

Sadly, there is no quick fix to immediately ending all overdose deaths. Many individuals battling addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) will continue to purchase dangerous, potentially fentanyl-laced street drugs because they are not able to access their substance of choice via safer methods in the United States. However, there are some things communities can do to help promote overdose “reversal” medications and encourage individuals living with opioid addiction to enter a treatment program.

#1. Make sure naloxone is available in case of opioid overdoses.

Contrary to what others may believe, overdose deaths caused by opioids can be reversed and treated. Naloxone is a medicine that can be used to treat an overdose caused by opioids, such as fentanyl. It must be administered immediately following the overdose. Naloxone works by binding to opioid receptors, thus blocking the effects of the opioid in an individual’s system. If the overdose is caused by fentanyl, an individual may require several doses of naloxone, as fentanyl is the most potent of opioid drugs.

It is imperative that, following an overdose, 911 is called. It is also imperative that emergency response teams be equipped with this life-saving treatment. An individual must receive immediate medical attention in order to survive an opioid overdose.

In addition to equipping emergency response teams with naloxone, naloxone (brand name Narcan) should be provided to community health centers, substance use treatment centers and other harm reduction resource organizations. Naloxone is not an illegal or illicit substance, and it can be life-saving. If you or someone in your home is at risk for opioid overdose, please consider having naloxone on hand. Don’t rely on your family member or loved one

#2. Encourage treatment entry and treatment engagement for loved ones who are struggling.

Time is of the essence if you have any loved ones who recreationally use opioids or are struggling with addiction to opioids. Educate them on the dangers of using street drugs. Help them get connected with treatment resources. Even if they are not yet ready to commit to sobriety, group therapy interventions are a great opportunity to understand the harms and consequences of drug use. Medication and behavioral therapies can be effective in treating substance use addiction, both for opioids and other substances.

Cliffside Malibu is an addiction treatment center that is no stranger to the addictive potential of opioids. We are motivated to educate others about the dangers and harms that can result from fentanyl. We have a treatment program available for everyone at Cliffside. To learn more, call us today at (855) 403-5641.